Paris nous appartient

Paris nous appartient/Paris Belongs to Us (1961 France 140 mins)

Prod Co: Ajym Films/Les Films du Carrosse Prod: Roland Nonin Dir: Jacques Rivette Scr: Jacques Rivette, Jean Gruault Phot: Charles Bitsch Ed: Denise de Casabianca Mus: Phillipe Arthuys

Cast: Betty Schneider, Giani Esposito, Françoise Prévost, Daniel Crohem, François Maistre, Jean-Claude Brialy

Paris nous appartient, or Paris Belongs to Us, is often spoken about as a tentative precursor to Jacques Rivette’s celebrated later films such as L’amour fou (1968) and Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974). Like many, I have not seen enough of the director’s work to fully indulge in such linear judgements. It is certainly clear that Rivette would go on to be more radical, and famously lengthy – many of his films are over three or even four hours long, and the almost mythical Out 1: noli me tangere (1971) runs for 12 hours. The director would also later make more classical films such as La Religieuse (1966) and La belle noiseuse (1991). However, for me at least, his debut feature is a perfect film in its way. If the first work of a long career should, at least in the oeuvre-charting rear-vision mirror, offer an appropriately characteristic or even perhaps idiosyncratic entry point into a distinct film-world, then Paris nous appartient is indeed a perfect “first” Rivette in its combination of formal daring and conceptual elusiveness.

Although he was a crucial figure in French film criticism during Cahiers du Cinéma’s seminal 50s and 60s period (including a stint as editor), Rivette’s arrival as a director with Paris nous appartient’s stalled release in 1961 seemed to founder in the wake of the huge critical and popular success of two earlier works of the nouvelle vague, Truffaut’s Les Quatre cents coups (1959) and Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960). This was despite the fact that Rivette was the first of the Cahiers gang to start shooting a feature film, in 1957 (though one can argue that the non-Cahiers aligned Agnès Varda actually made the first nouvelle vague film, La Pointe Courte, in 1954). Yet the film’s “too late” arrival (Rivette took over three years to source enough money to complete the film) is, in retrospect, entirely in keeping with this filmmaker’s out-of-the-limelight tendency. Unlike Truffaut or Godard at least, he has been reticent when it comes to publicising his own work, and with few exceptions (notably Céline et Julie), Rivette has never really been seen as “of the moment”, abiding instead by his own timelines and aesthetic predilections. This tendency towards relative obscurity and solitariness also relates to Paris nous appartient itself, for this is about the most unusual – and to my mind radical – French film of its period. Yet it features many elements for which the nouvelle vague made its name: a low-budget; location shooting (though not here with synch-sound); non-classical narrative form; experimentation with diverse aesthetic modes; and an interest in charting the precise social, cultural and moral issues of the moment. All this takes place in – and is in part about – the quintessential French metropolis.

While Paris nous appartient is exemplary in all the aspects cited above, the tone, affective impact, and formal-conceptual make-up of the film are almost completely opposite to that of other noted French films of the time. While more famous nouvelle vague works seem to aspire to zeitgeist-rendering, painting portraits of turn of the decade Paris that are full of a hopeful energy, partly achieved via a then-fresh hybrid of modernist experimentation and pop culture referencing, Rivette’s film is shot through with thick pessimism, alienation and late-50s paranoia (a mood which, as many have pointed out, now looks politically, morally and psychologically prescient in the wake of paranoid 70s cinema). In terms of contemporary comparisons, its general tone is perhaps closer – though of course still very different – to that of Antonioni than Godard, Truffaut or Rohmer. Like a younger, more bohemian version of the disaffected bourgeois class charted in Antonioni’s contemporaneous films (most notably La Notte, which emerged the same year as Paris nous appartient), these students, artists and intellectuals are both idealistic – politically and culturally – and disabled by an ennui brought about by myopia and a creeping sense of nihilism. (This malaise is perhaps at its clearest, and most humorous, in the party sequences, amongst the most depressing of any French film I have seen.)

Rivette is, however, a deceptively complex filmmaker, and his interest in paranoia, alienation and nihilism is paired, to some extent at least, with subtle irony and a sense of play. So while a brooding, seemingly unresolvable sense of conspiracy drives the film’s is-it-or-isn’t-it narrative – the “problem” at first seeming political in the form of a broadly resurgent fascist power (McCarthy-era United States, Franco’s Spain and Europe’s fascist legacy are all vaguely referenced) – the viewer is also able to see the anguished on-screen behaviour as humorously deluded, hermetically “existential” or primarily a social performance. These layers are all equally viable as interpretive strands that co-exist despite their apparent contradictions, revealing Rivette as a truly “democratic” filmmaker. The more one engages with this cinema, the more multi-layered (hence hermeneutically rewarding) and elusive it becomes.

Thematically, the viewer feels the effect of traditionally opposite energies: here, perhaps, belief and scepticism. On the one hand, the conspiracy insisted upon by the exaggeratedly paranoid American characters (their French-accented English notwithstanding) – Philip, a writer “in exile” from McCarthy, and the femme fatale-like Terry – can seem quite convincing. This is because, in a broad sense, it pertains to very real historical and political problems, with the film effectively tapping into the understandable depression felt by the intellectual Left in the 1950s in the face of right-wing economic and social agendas that were being quietly re-cemented. Yet, at other times, the dark espousers of conspiracy themselves seem quite sinister, mad (hence so too does the film itself), and generally dislikeable. Meanwhile, the viewer’s “surrogate”, a literary student called Anne who skips her exams, seems to want to believe, though perhaps only out of boredom – and as the conspiracy is the film’s only potential means of generating a narrative, so do we perhaps. Nevertheless, she comes across as naïve, gullible and not especially smart.

That the camera (and hence the audience) nearly always sticks with Anne throughout the film, and the particular ways Rivette films her increasingly labyrinthine journeys around Paris’ less glamorous inner regions, highlights the aesthetic dimensions of the film’s opposition-encompassing address. Just as the conspiracy, or at least the political paranoia, seems both viable and mad, the film’s rendering of the physical space of the city is both convincingly “real” and abstracted to the point of appearing oneiric. In this regard, I think Paris nous appartient is a truly great film about the modern city. Rivette captures, in a unique way, the material “there-ness” of urban space and the social real it engenders, the doggedly modern and secular nature of its multiple interior and exterior locations, and yet, at the same time, also how such space produces its own distinct metaphysics – the “uncanny” nature of the semi-deserted metropolis, and the way images of Anne crossing streets appear both realistic (through convincing location shooting) and yet abstracted due in part to a post-synchronised soundtrack comprised of over-amplified footsteps and Phillipe Arthuys’ noteworthy modernist score.

This is a great film not only about the destabilising psychological impact of the city but also its genuinely unnerving material presence – as well as the culture that prevails within its crannies, people who cannot leave because they are such creatures of the city (twice Anne refuses her brother’s idea of going to the country to see their parents) but who possess no real economic or social power there. As the title suggests, perhaps they and their future youthful 60s brethren would like to “own” the city, and hence modernity itself, fulfilling what would become the promise of the new decade by overthrowing the old order (which the film makes clear is directly associated with fascism and collaboration). Yet the “us” designated by the title come across as floating vagrants within this space that is their vertiginous home, self-styled prey of the political and cultural geo-movements of history even if such an, at least, partial reality becomes (as Terry suggests in one of her contradictory speeches) simplified, or narrativised, down to a question of conspiracies.

With the conspiracy treated by the film as the elusive “narrative” for which Anne searches as our onscreen agent, we can see the film’s approach to narrative per se as distinctively but subtly reflexive. One cannot definitively say when, or if, this narrative is taking effect because without Anne’s passive pursuit of Philip and Terry’s conspiratorial claims concerning the death of their friend Juan, there isn’t one. Our desire for a narrative relies entirely on Anne’s slow, tenuous and inconclusive movements through Paris’ eerie underbelly. And complicating her reticent, possibly “white elephant” investigation is the other primary on-screen means of generating reflexivity: the metaphor of theatre and performance.

Through the fragmentary and increasingly risible attempts of a ramshackle amateur theatre group to stage Shakespeare’s fragmented and “un-stageable” play Pericles, we are shown the onscreen struggle to mount an “independent” production. For instance, the director and his unpaid actors must use a different rehearsal space every day, chosen from the diverse corners of the city. The film we’re watching is the end result of a very similar process. More broadly, this peculiar focus on the theatre – to which the director will return repeatedly in later films – allows us, in true Shakespearean tradition, to see “the world” itself as “a stage”. Once this element of the film’s reflexivity is felt, the apparent oppositions or tensions between belief and scepticism, the material and metaphysical, the political and psychological, realism and expressionism, become further complicated by their subtle framing (or staging) as performance. Yet while Godard and countless other 60s filmmakers introduce “Brechtian” reflexive incursions to overthrow narrative illusion in the name of critique, Rivette’s more submerged radicalism lingers longer in the mind of the viewer, and is perhaps more affectively unnerving. This emphasis on theatrical performance means that the film’s insidious reflexivity effectively incorporates any purported meta-filmic or social real, including our own.

Beyond Shakespeare, Paris nous appartient has often been seen in terms of more modern literary touchstones: particularly Kafka and Borges. On the one hand, the film’s convincing socio-political and psychological portrayal of modern experience as a perceptual labyrinth in which one is persecuted by a dreadful (yet invisible) conspiracy, evokes the Kafkaesque more successfully than many films which have consciously tried to do so. But beyond the affective aspects of urban space and the psychological dread engendered by rootless modern experience, can we say for sure that the labyrinth or conspiracy exists? One notable scene has Anne and Gerard, the idealistic director of the doomed theatrical production, asserting in front of the Seine that, like Pericles, the world is not as fragmentary or absurd as it seems. While this dialogue exchange appears to veer towards the agnosticism of Kafka (and hence away from a more atheistic existentialist insistence on metaphysical absurdity, famously articulated by Camus), these words are uttered by the film’s most naïve character. She is also the character most aligned with the viewer, and whose wilful belief-sustaining desire for the labyrinth to be revealed, so that the film has a narrative purpose, is insidiously placed in reflexive relief here. In addition to providing much pleasure through non-prescriptive and subtle usage of diverse cultural material (in this case, literary), moments like these can also make us consider how the film is fundamentally powered less by narrative or the viability of the trope of conspiracy than by contradictions that are “productive” not so much in terms of generating an answer or synthesis, but as multiple co-existing strands in a subtly reflexive film offering unusually democratic opportunities for co-authorship by the viewers.

Paris nous appartient is rich with the social and cultural material “of its era”. But, for me at least, it transcends its historical moment and holds up better today than the pop-modernism of contemporaneous Godard (pre-Vivre sa vie, 1962) and the youthful humanism of Truffaut. Watched in the context of both our new and worryingly consistent sources of anxiety and paranoia, political and otherwise, the film comes across as a troubling, playful and truly compelling “return” of an eerily historical yet commandingly relevant vision of vertiginous contemporary life.