Paris vu par was the brainchild of Barbet Schroeder, a young man determined to establish himself as a film producer, as well as a contributing member of the French New Wave. He had already produced two short films for Eric Rohmer, La Boulangère de Monceau (1963) and La Carrière de Suzanne (1963), and now set out to further establish his burgeoning production company, Les Films du Losange, by producing a full-length feature. He also hoped to re-vitalize the New Wave, which had transformed cinema a few years before but was now in danger of fading away after attacks in the press and declining public interest, by bringing together some of its best talents in collaboration on a single project. Schroeder’s concept was a collection of six short films, each telling a story set in a different district of Paris and each written and directed by a different director. He insisted on consistent guidelines for the directors to follow. Everything had to be shot on 16mm film, as well as on location – interiors as well as exteriors; the crews had to be small, with only a camera operator, assistant, and sound engineer, and an electrician to provide light when necessary. “I think of modern cinema as in color with direct sound. And 16mm allows a great mobility in filming and recording sounds – allowing considerable economy – but also providing total freedom of inspiration for the auteur directors.”
Whilst the film that resulted from Schroeder’s bold plan may not have single-handedly revived the New Wave, it succeeds in evoking perfectly the essence of the movement, from six quite different perspectives. Jean Douchet, better known now as a writer and teacher of film studies than a director, opens proceedings with what at first appears to be a kind of travelogue documentary about the St Germain des Prés district. Scenes of the neighbourhood are accompanied by a voice-over describing the famous sights and the artistic and bohemian nature of its inhabitants. “Its charm attracts female American students in love with old Europe,” the narrator informs us. The ironic implication of an outsider in love with a fantasy somewhat at odds with reality introduces the theme of the following story in which an American girl entranced with the city falls for a local boy, only to be cruelly disillusioned the morning after the night before. It’s a slight tale, reminiscent of early Godard, but enduringly relevant in its observations of the dating game.
The decision to include Jean Rouch – by then middle-aged and known for his documentary work – as one of the film’s directors might seem a strange choice but the gamble pays off with the superb Gare du Nord. Schroeder himself stars in the film opposite the captivating Nadine Ballot, who sadly appears to have given up acting after appearing in the film. Rouch films the action in what appears to be one continuous take, although it is in fact two shots joined with a cleverly disguised cut as the elevator descends into the darkness, with one final reverse shot. It’s an approach that succeeds in drawing us into the emotion of the moment as our sympathies shift back and forth between the three characters. The final scene, tracking beside the two characters as they cross the railway bridge, must stand amongst the most memorable and haunting in New Wave cinema. Light relief comes in the shape of Jean-Daniel Pollet’s nicely observed character study of a lonely dishwasher and a cynical prostitute. It serves as an amusing counterpoint to Jean-Luc Godard’s considerably bleaker treatments of the world’s oldest profession, although the ending is somewhat perfunctory and fails to deliver on our raised expectations for this mismatched couple.
Schroeder saves his big guns for the final three contributions to the movie. Of these, Eric Rohmer’s witty Place d’Etoile is the best. Through the subtlest of means, Rohmer manages to convey the main character’s sense of guilt after what any witness would have seen was an accident. After he knocks the man down and begins to run, crossing against the lights, there are distant sounds of dogs barking and police whistles. Once he gets to work and buys a new umbrella, having left the old one at the scene of the crime, a siren can be heard. Are these all purely objective sounds or reflections of the character’s interior paranoia? Rohmer treads a fine but perfectly balanced line between realism and fantasy throughout.
It was Schroeder who had the inspiration to pair Albert Maysles, pioneering director and cameraman of the American cinema verité movement, and Jean-Luc Godard. “He had it all set up, actors, script, lighting,” Maysles recalled, “I filmed it like a real event, as if it were a piece of documentary reality, so it had this quality of total spontaneity.” This documentary approach succeeds in elevating what is in truth a fairly run of the mill narrative to something more thought provoking. The objective neutrality of viewpoint becomes the point of the film. By avoiding emotional identification with the girl we cannot avoid the judgement that she is wrong ¬– not simply in the practical error of mixing up the letters but in the moral error on which the story is based, her casual infidelity.
Claude Chabrol concludes the film with the darkly comic La Muette (the name of an area of Paris that literally translates as “the mute”). Rarely has family life been portrayed as bleakly as this on screen. There is no warmth in the household, only bitterness, lust and deceit. There is an emphasis on the grotesque, with close up shots of the characters shoving food into their mouths and chewing exaggeratedly. No wonder that the boy appears well on the way to becoming a psychopath who gets his kicks by vandalizing his parent’s possessions or slapping around the cats with sadistic glee. The ending feels a bit cheap – an easy shock twist to bring the story to a quick conclusion – but Chabrol makes up for it with a memorable final image of the boy out on the street, in the middle of a crowd, completely silent, looking bewildered and alone.