Of the six sketches in Paris vu par… (1965) Eric Rohmer’s is the most faithful to the directive: one Parisian neighbourhood for each filmmaker. But, Jean-Luc Godard cleverly gets around it with a pirouette; Jean-Daniel Pollet and Jean Douchet remain faithful to the most conventional aspects of their areas of interest; Jean Rouch’s actor throws himself off the bridge that overlooks the Gare du Nord – but which could be going over any railroad track – and Claude Chabrol’s, set in an apartment, could either unfold or not in La Muette, just as well as in any other one of Paris’s newest ritzy neighbourhoods – Auteuil, Ternes, Neuilly or Marnes la Coquette.
Place de l’Étoile, on the other hand, could not have been set anywhere else. It was an area that Rohmer knew well since he had been, for seven years, the Editor-in-Chief of Cahiers du cinéma, located 50 metres above the Champs Élysées from the aforementioned spot. It is a film that Rohmer seems to have mulled over while crossing the twelve avenues opening onto the Place – going to lunch, running an errand, or seeing a film at one of the neighbouring theatres like the MacMahon or the old Napoléon.
Place de l’Étoile succeeded where A Bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) had failed. Godard showed Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg crosscut with De Gaulle passing in his presidential car, but the censors cut this out because “one does not have the right to show a living politician in a fictional film.” But here, Rohmer doesn’t run into any problems. Although it is true that De Gaulle is only shown in the film’s introduction (shot documentary-style) before the fictional part has started and that it was also a matter of a genre-less short film from whose screenings our censors generally skipped out on.
This introduction has a peculiar aspect in that it states that Parisians themselves never go to the centre of the Place de l’Étoile, where you find the Arc de Triomphe. At the time, it was only accessible by a crosswalk placed across a very large street which proved to be extremely dangerous for pedestrians. Rohmer also mentions an interesting contradiction: the synchronisation of the traffic lights at each of the twelve avenues was conceived to serve the rapid movement of cars and not of pedestrians, who had to run very quickly so as to not be caught in front of twelve red lights consecutively. Moreover, I remember trying the cyclists’ trick which involved trying to hit twelve green lights consecutively. This documentary element makes the fiction that follows more believable.
The film’s only character, a clothing salesman who works in a boutique on Avenue Victor-Hugo, bumps into a man – slightly drunk, possibly a tramp – who is staggering along in front of him. He apologises. The man is not satisfied by such a conventional remark and he attacks Jean-Marc (Jean-Michel Rouzière) who defends himself with the help of his umbrella. The man grabs hold of the umbrella to try to prevent a fatal blow and ends up falling to the ground with it. He may no longer be moving. Is it a heart attack? Jean-Marc, a rather Dostoevskian character, fears that he has just killed him with the tip of his umbrella or that he’ll be slowed down by the police’s questioning when he has to get to work. A medium shot tips us off that the man might only be slightly wounded – an ambiguity that is gracefully revealed thanks to Rohmer’s skillfully conceived mise en scène/ballet.
Confused, Jean-Marc, who is in fact entirely innocent, flees – risking both violating the law and his own existence by, without obeying the traffic lights, racing across the eight avenues that separate him from his work place, despite all the cars. Rohmer – who never got his license – was very scared of cars. But Jean-Marc is even more pompous and traditional than Rohmer. He is always impeccably dressed, he wipes away the sand from the construction site that is in his path before going on, he pays at his own cash register for the back-up umbrella he has just bought in his own store, he is always very polite, even if he lets his irritation slip out for a quarter of a second in front of the people who are bugging him.
He looks for any mention of the incident in newspapers. The very dramatic press clippings we see fly across the screen vertically accompanied by military music show that he fears the worst. He avoids passing by the Place de l’Etoile and prefers to take the less convenient metro Victor-Hugo. Absolute paranoia. All of this is shown humorously, evoking characters in Gogol.
Jean-Marc’s eccentricities are complimented by the choice of intertitles that use large, coloured fonts like those in medieval legends or old books of children’s fairytales, despite it being a very mundane, banal contemporary incident that Jean-Marc is making a big deal out of. But Rohmer’s paranoiac vein had been increased at any rate by his expulsion from Cahiers du cinéma following a dramatic takeover and by his early misadventures in filmmaking (an unfinished feature, another which was released under the radar after three years).
Later, Jean-Marc thinks that he has run into his aggressor, in fine health, in the subway. Is it a double? The glance he shoots Jean-Marc suggests otherwise.
Did he quickly recover from his cardiac failure? Or did he pretend to be dead to scare Jean-Marc, from whom he was able, in all likelihood, to steal his beautiful umbrella that he probably resold?
This last theory seems the likeliest, but Rohmer doesn’t resolve it. It is the only open-ended film of his career. Usually in his films, though he might have a doubt about the nature of a character’s action or motivation, everything is cleared up at the end.
Jean-Marc acts along the same lines that he traces every day of his life. But they are modified now by the curved lines of the grid around the Place de l’Etoile. He has to find the shortest route in the middle of these curves. We have here a minimalist piece of action that conveys more about human nature than any ‘important work’ that wears its message on its sleeve.
We should thank Rohmer for the originality of his description of the people who frequent this area. These are not, as the richness of it would make us think, swanky, wealthy folk, but the little people of Paris who go to work each morning and upon whom Rohmer casts an interested, courteous and amused regard. His own secretary from Cahiers du cinéma plays an important role in that regard. A film that is both perfect and unusual in form, closed in on itself, and that seems to have nothing to say, but which actually says everything. A pure diamond. I’ll note that this little drama seems to owe itself to the redirection of the everyday route imposed by the RER construction work (1). Once again, Rohmer the traditionalist, rebelling against progress.
Paris vu par… has an interesting characteristic: its labelling allows it both to obtain the six bonuses of quality attributed to short films and to benefit from the much more favourable distribution conditions of a feature. This is a system that numerous other films will make use of.
The French language version of this article originally appeared in Bref Magazine, www.brefmagazine.com. Reprinted with the kind permission of Luc Moullet and Jacques Kermabon.
- RER, or Réseau Express Régional (Regional Express Network), is a rapid transit system connected to the traditional Paris Metro that serves Paris and its surrounding suburbs. Construction on the first RER line began in 1961 (to be completed in 1969) and it is this line that can be seen being constructed in the film.