Friday, January 25, 2008

Paris vu par...

Paris vu par... is a portmanteau film from 1965, part of a brief vogue for such multi-director compilations in the 60s. Anyone who's made an attempt to go through the oeuvre of Jean-Luc Godard, in particular, will certainly have encountered their fair share of these films, since Godard seemingly contributed to almost all of them. And anyone who's seen a few will know that in general they're a terribly uneven lot, marred by many lackluster efforts, with maybe a gem or two (usually from Godard!) sparkling amidst all the muck. This film, in which six different French directors contribute six shorts about Paris, is no exception to the general rule. Each director focuses his short on a different neighborhood of the city, a conceptually slight idea that allows them pretty much free rein to choose their own stories. The results, though, are largely disappointing.

In Jean Douchet's Saint Germain-des-Pres, the American girl Katherine (Barbara Wilkin), gets involved with a French boy who's pretending to be an ambassador's son. She sleeps with him once, only to have him throw her out the next morning, telling her he needs to go to Mexico to see his father. Obviously, she sees him the next day and uncovers the ruse, then runs into the boy who he was pretending to be. All of this plays out with little enough visual flair, but worse still virtually no sense of the purpose behind it. Douchet's film is utterly dull and pointless, even though it obviously aspires to the witty boy/girl dynamics of Godard's seminal Breathless. Leaving aside the issue of originality, this short is missing several crucial components from its blueprint, namely the underlying sexual politics, playfulness, and inventive use of filmic formal elements that made Godard's film what it was. Douchet seems to have taken Godard's old catch phrase about a girl and a gun to heart, seemingly believing that all you need is a guy, a girl, and a camera, and then you've got a film. Not so, as this paper-thin trifle of a film proves.

Jean Rouch's Gare du Nord is a small improvement, a similarly flimsy premise which is at least teased out into a story of actual consequence, bringing out the subtexts and potential meanings of the material in a way that Douchet fails to even attempt. In Rouch's short, a married couple (Nadine Ballot and Barbet Schroeder) living in a lousy apartment adjacent to a construction site spend the morning fighting, until she storms out and says she won't be back anytime soon. At this point, Rouch interrupts the overexposed quality of the visuals from the apartment, where everything looked washed-out and glistening with harsh sunlight, with a very dark and moody shot as the wife descends in the elevator. This lovely shot provides an interlude, a point of stasis and contemplation, with Ballot's profile shrouded in darkness, the elevator grate casting moving shadows across her face, as her husband's voice grows ever fainter, echoing with a metallic ring from above. It's a beautiful moment, well worth the film's brief length for that alone.

In the second half of this film, Ballot walks towards work and is accosted on the way by a stranger (Gilles Quéant) who abruptly offers her nearly everything that she was just complaining was lacking from her life with her husband: material wealth, a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood, world travel. This is a film about discontentment, especially with class status. But this man, a metaphorical stand-in for the upper class, and also a parodic one — he is so rich he doesn't think twice about leaving his expensive car idling in the middle of the road while he walks with this girl — is also discontented. He has left his suburban rich neighborhood in search of something different for himself, finding his own life too quiet and dull. In fact, he threatens to kill himself unless Ballot goes off with on a vacation, but she refuses and he follows through on his threat. This puzzling ending to some extent defuses the short's potential, which until this melodramatic turn of events, had seemed quite good. Rouch raises some interesting questions in terms of the relationship between the working classes and the bourgeoisie, and the profound dissatisfactions that can affect both classes. But while the portrait of working class life here is firmly fixed in social realities and the ordinary, the stranger's depiction of the upper-class borders on fantasy, with no similar understanding of class pressures. And the story resolves itself in such a ridiculous manner that it's ultimately hard to take any of it too seriously.

Jean-Daniel Pollet's Rue Saint-Denis is quite possibly this film's weakest segment, a totally pointless vignette that goes nowhere and says nothing, in the dullest manner possible. A man (Claude Melki) hires a slightly aged prostitute (Micheline Dax), and takes her back to his cluttered and tiny apartment. The two of them awkwardly talk, eat dinner together, and read the paper. Pollet certainly captures the uncomfortable and impersonal nature of the prostitute relationship — well there's a news flash, huh? — but otherwise it's hard to figure out what exactly this is supposed to be. It's too minimalist and distanced for a character study, and we never learn anything about the characters anyway. But it's also too deadpan to be a comedy, too lightweight to be a social exposé, and too event-less to be a drama. It's simply a moment, captured for its own sake, but it's not substantial enough to justify a film, not even one barely longer than ten minutes.

Eric Rohmer's Place de l'Etoile is one of his weaker efforts, even if in most of this company it winds up looking comparatively strong. The film opens with a documentary segment, in which Rohmer describes the area after which his segment is titled, a section of 12 streets arranged in a star pattern around the perimeter of the Arc de Triomphe. This area is carefully established in the opening minutes, particularly the way that the layout of streets leads to a situation where pedestrians circling the Arc are continually forced to cross busy intersections formed by the crisscrossing network of streets. This informative establishing material pays off when Rohmer's narrative reaches its climax, allowing the viewer to place the protagonist's movements within the context of the space he's moving in. It's a simple thing, but this is the only segment so far to truly establish a sense of location and spatial logistics for the neighborhood that gives its name to the segment. Despite the nominal theme of this project, most of the other directors chose stories that could take place anywhere, that use the neighborhoods they're located in as backgrounds at best. Only Rohmer, always detail-oriented, understands that character is at least partially defined by space. Just as in his features he always pays inordinate attention to the decoration of his characters' living spaces, here he takes great pains to set up the environment in which his character will be moving.

Once the narrative gets going, though, it's a simple enough little story, about a haughty and fastidious clothing shop clerk (Jean-Michel Rouzière) who believes that he's accidentally killed a bum who accosted him on the street. The payoff of the documentary sequence that opened the feature is Rouzière's mad dash away from the scene of the crime through the entire Place de l'Etoile, running across intersections filled with cars and weaving among the other pedestrians. The slow, leisurely tour of the opening minutes is now repeated at a much brisker pace, as the man runs frantically from his imagined pursuers. They never catch him, and months later he runs across the bum on the train, and thus realizes that he didn't kill him after all. It's a slight story, obviously, as minimal and pointless as many of the others in this compilation film. The only difference is that Rohmer's characteristic attention to mise en scène allows him to inflect even this undistinguished narrative with at least a hint of cinematic interest.

For his contribution to this film, Montparnasse-Levallois, Jean-Luc Godard enlisted the help of documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, whose films with his brother David comprise one of the central bodies of work in the American cinéma-vérité movement. With Maysles handling the camerawork and Godard providing the scenario, direction, and editing, this short represents the meeting of two very different cinematic minds. The contrast results in a film that doesn't quite feel like a true Godard film, since it's very rare that Godard ever worked with another creative intelligence who could exercise this much influence over the aesthetic qualities of his films — even his collaborations with Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Miéville always feel very much like Godard films. Indeed, Maysles' dodging, shifting handheld camera defines this film, which follows Monica (Joanna Shimkus) as she mixes up the letters she sent to her two lovers, and goes to each in turn to try to straighten things out. Maysles keeps the camera almost constantly in motion, diving in for shaky closeups and snaking around within the confines of the cramped workplaces where Monica visits the two men. Even in relatively stable shots, the camera is slightly shaking from side to side, zooming in for closer views, and abruptly panning between the two people in a conversation.

The opening titles inform that this is an "action-film," and Godard has one of his characters indirectly explain what this means early on. Monica's first lover is an "action-sculptor," which he says means that he takes whatever pieces of metal happen to be lying at hand and combines them through improvisation. Obviously, this applies equally well to the loose quality of Maysles' cinematography, which seems to sample the images in front of it at random, arriving at semi-stable compositions only through continual adjustment and tweaking. This jittery, nervous energy in the camerawork is very different from the smooth, sinewy motion and dispassionate pans usually favored in Godard's work. Maysles' camera lends itself to the kind of psychological and emotional character identification that Godard usually disdains in favor of more formal and intellectual elements. For this reason alone, Montparnasse-Levallois feels very different from Godard's other work, and especially his work from this point in his career, when he was beginning his transformation into a truly radical filmmaker.

Camerawork aside, though, this isn't a particularly radical film to begin with, and it's perhaps the first throwaway film that Godard made since some of his pre-Breathless shorts. It's not a bad short by any means, and just in terms of the cleverness of the writing, the deft handling of the symmetrical plot, and the charming female lead, it elevates itself above some of the other dreck in this compilation, despite the similar romantic themes. The symmetry of the visits to the two men also brings up an interesting parallel in terms of the two men's occupations — one is a sculptor who welds metal in order to create semi-abstract statues of women, while the other is a mechanic who does bodywork on cars. Both are welders and molders of metal, both shape bodies made of steel. Godard doesn't go much further than that with the parallel, unfortunately, but it's an interesting formal echo at least, and a highly suggestive thematic subtext. Still, this is pretty neutered and empty for 60s Godard, a very minor entry in his most fertile and famous creative period.

Claude Chabrol's La Muette is the most visually striking of the films here, dominated by odd camera angles and disorienting setups that turn a simple domestic space into something cold, alien, and even frightening. A young boy (Gilles Chusseau) is traumatized and aggravated by the constant bickering of his parents (Stéphane Audran and Chabrol himself), as well as his father's unsubtle dalliances with the family's sexy maid (Dany Saril). The family is obviously upper class, and their life is presented as a rhythmic and unvarying series of similar events, especially centered around the dinner table, where they all stuff their faces and fight. Chabrol rhythmically returns to the same or similar images again and again, panning around the dinner table to show each member of the family shoving food into their mouths and chewing exaggeratedly. Then a cut, and the pan sequence repeats, maybe with subtle differences, but with the same basic emphasis on eating and mastication. This cycling quality of domestic life is both numbing and painful, and Chabrol expertly draws out the obvious anguish, boredom, and antagonism lurking beneath the surface.

When the boy has had enough, he unleashes a rampage around the house — curiously unpunished and unmentioned afterwards, which makes me wonder if he just fantasized it — and discovers that he can dampen his hearing with some ear plugs he steals from his mother. From then on, the boy walks around his house in a curtain of total silence, not hearing the petty arguments of his parents. Chabrol obliges by shutting off the soundtrack as well, cloaking the viewer in that same eerie stillness and silence. It's an effective (and affecting) portrait of alienation and isolation, whether self-imposed or not. The segment's ending leaves a lot to be desired, resorting to cheap shocks in order to bring the situation to a quick close, but Chabrol redeems the film by inserting a final shot of the boy out on the streets, in the center of a crowd, totally silent, looking confused and lost. It's a haunting final image of desperation and loneliness, as the boy is very much alone even in the center of the crowd of people from whom he's sealed off by a wall of silence.

As a whole, Paris vu par... is a flawed and mediocre collection of shorts, with even some of the more well-known directors here turning in subpar efforts. With the exception of the completely worthless Douchet and Pollet shorts, all of these films have at least moments or aspects of interest, and fans of Godard, Chabrol, or Rohmer would certainly want to fill in their knowledge of those directors' key 60s period with the shorts included here. Otherwise, this is a disappointing collection of utterly average films, and the periodic moments of interest and engagement don't do too much to elevate it above this low level.


DavidEhrenstein said...

I couldn't disagree more. True the Douchet is a trifle and the Rohmer negligible (though characteristic).

The Pollet should be seen in the context provided by his other Melki vehicles, particularly L'amour c'est gai, l'amour c'est trist and the magnificent L'acrobate. (Pollet, incidentally, is the first known filmmaker to direct a film posthumously)

The Godard is interesting in that it not only uses the anecdote Belmondo tells Karina in A Woman is a Woman but the same music by Michel Legrand as well. It's also the debut of the future Mrs. Sidney Poitier.

La Muette is a major Chabrol, recapitulating themes found in the likes of A Double Tour and La Ceremonie in capsule form.

As for the Rouch it's an absolute masterpeice of the cinema. It consists of four shots: A brief establishing shot, then the first one shot scene with the cut coming when Nadine gets into the elevator, followed by the nest long shot, and then an establishing pull-away finale. Barbet is perfectly cast as a former Sports God now gone-to-seed, and the entire film is in the form of a question and an answer -- thus making it as one with Chronicle of a Summer and La Pyramide Humaine.

yael, Jerusalem said...

I feel the need to defend Rohmer's piece. In my opinion, it's the only short film that discussed the relationship between the city and its citizens.
Sure, the characters were indeed precisely 'characteristic', and that in itself seemed like the sole purpose. But when the connection between the two figures is deeply examined, you can see the delicate complexity of prostitute-client relation accompanied by mother-son relation.
That might be the exact sense of being a Parisian: being hosted by this large, passionate, diabolical woman that still carries you in her arms unconditionally.
Oh, did you know that the actress who played the prostitute gave her voice to the French 'Muppets' as miss Piggy?

c90blank said...

Does any one know what became of Nadine Ballot? There is little to no information on her besides the 3 films she appeared in.