Though the locations of every Paris New Wave film circa 1959 can be very exactly mapped (1), Le signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1959) is unusual in actually showing a map of Paris and in, moreover, establishing around that map a signifying scheme from which meanings for the film emerge (2). The map of Paris, a standard ‘carte Taride’, is on the wall near the foot of the protagonist’s bed. Just above his head is a map of a quite different kind, a double planisphère showing the stars in the northern and southern skies. Between these two cartographic representations, opposing horizontality and verticality, will be organised much of the film’s mise-en-scène. My object here is to do two things: map some of the locations of Eric Rohmer’s film, and connect that mapping to the film’s central cartographic motif.

A related motif is also central to The Sign of Leo: movement around and beyond the city, presented chiefly through the protagonist’s perambulations. Pierre (Jess Hahn) begins walking about half an hour into the film, and for thirty-five of the next fifty or so minutes he walks, and walks, and walks. The eight different journeys he makes in this period, in as many different directions, contrast with the credit sequence’s tracking shot from a river boat along the Seine, west to east, a single journey that we will see repeated twice, from different angles, at key moments later in the film (3). In more dramatic contrast is the travelling of his friend Jean-François (Van Doude) who, when not driving around Paris in his Peugeot 203 convertible, flies around the world on assignment, firstly to Hassi-Messaoud in Algeria and then, in the space of five days, from Johannesburg to Moscow and on to Monrovia, while Pierre tries desperately to find him, or any of their friends, in Paris. The film’s other vehicles – the trains that have taken his friends away on holiday, the buses that pass him as he walks out to the suburbs, the metro he cannot take because he has lost his ticket, the postman’s bicycle that brings Pierre news of his aunt’s death, the Cadillac in which his rich cousin crashes and dies, the pram in which he promenaded by his fellow tramp – all intensify the misery of having to walk around Paris.

Pierre’s walking is not, of course, flânerie, and though the cumulative effect might be one of aimless wandering, his journeys across Paris are all for a purpose: to find a friend from whom to borrow money, to find food, to find a place to sleep. Each journey is, moreover, topographically consistent, even when substantial ellipses suggest a haphazard montage. Each could, accordingly, be plotted for the cine-tourist’s benefit, though for this essay I shall simply list Pierre’s ‘Paris Walks’ in an appendix.

Plotting a film’s locations on a standard two-dimensional map will privilege horizontal differentiations over the vertical or diagonal, which at first sight is not a problem for The Sign of Leo, since the protagonist’s movements around and, briefly, out of Paris are insistently street-level. When he walks to Nanterre he follows a stark straight line on the map from the Pont de Neuilly metro station, across the bridge and then left at the newly built CNIT (Centre des nouvelles industries et technologies) towards the Avenue Georges Clemenceau, right into the rue Sadi Carnot and then left into the rue des Carriers, the address he’d been given. His return along the same route is shown more elliptically, until at the metro station he discovers that his ticket is lost and he must walk back into Paris, an even straighter line down the avenue de la Grande Armée and the avenue des Champs-Elysées.

His abortive descent into the metro station signals with irony the horizontality of his street-level existence by this point. His story had begun at a higher level, in his third-floor apartment at 27 quai des Grands Augustins. Looking skyward from his window over Paris, Pierre declares that ‘For ten years I’ve had just one idea, to see the sky’, to which an incredulous friend replies: ‘When you have the finest view of Paris?’. The significant centrality of Pierre’s first address can be shown on a map, but its significant elevation cannot.

When his fortune leaves him and he must change domicile, his room at the Hôtel de Seine is two floors lower, and has no view. Later still, in attempting to obtain a room at the Hôtel de Senlis, he gets no further than the ground floor reception desk. Thereafter he sleeps at ground level (at the terrace of the Café de Flore, on a bench on the Champs-Elysées, on the Pont Neuf, on the steps of the lycée Saint Louis) or, marking a further descent, almost at river level (in the square du Vert Galant on the Île de la Cité and on the bank between the Pont au Double and the Petit Pont).

Again, the difference of levels will not show up on a map of the film. As if in acknowledgement of the fact, at this point the film deploys an alternative motif to the cartographic, one that can register differences of level by foregrounding verticality. The motif is introduced, obliquely, twelve minutes earlier, when Pierre tries to find Dominique (Michèle Girardon) at the Hôtel du Pas de Calais. Learning at the reception desk that she is absent, Pierre walks back out past five aerial photographs of Paris, the last of which shows the Île de la Cité encircled by the Seine, an angled view from the west of the façade of Notre Dame and the Pont Saint Michel (next to which he had been living at the beginning of the film). Pierre pauses with his back to this view before walking out of frame to leave us contemplating two images: a very map-like photograph and, revealed beside it by a slight adjustment of the camera, an actual map of the hotel’s immediate area (the boulevard Raspail where it joins the boulevard Saint Germain).

When this photographic motif is returned to, Pierre is lying by the water’s edge. Filmed first from the quai de Montebello above him, then from a reverse angle and much higher up (presumably from a position on the cathedral), this second shot pans away from him up towards the south west and then – astonishingly – dissolves into an aerial photograph of the same view. From this image the camera suddenly zooms back, pausing briefly at the end of the shot so that we can compare it with the map-like photographs we saw in the Hôtel du Pas de Calais. (The immediately following shot is a ground-level view from a Cadillac convertible speeding through the countryside.)

Several New Wave films (e.g. Le petit soldat/The Little Soldier, Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) deploy a reflexive contrast between filmmaking and photography, and The Sign of Leo has in Michel (Gilbert Edard) a photographer character who might serve the purpose, but the insertion here of a photograph into the flow of film is formally far more radical, on a par with the freezing of the image in Les quatre cents coups, (The 400 Blows, François Truffaut, 1959) and Jules et Jim (François Truffaut, 1961). There is, regrettably, no space here to attempt a thorough commentary on these remarkable few seconds. For my purposes I would signal simply a connection with the last few minutes of the film. Pierre has collapsed by the entrance of a building on the place Saint Germain des Prés (actually the offices of the Societe d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale). He has reached the lowest level of his existence, and the camera is again angled down at him. Then he is finally retrieved by his friends, and as he stands the camera levels to film him horizontally, at eye-level. He leaves with his friends, by car, and the film will close with another downward angled shot that then pans up. The shot finishes looking up at the tower of the Saint Germain des Prés church, to dissolve into another aerial photograph, though this time of a quite different kind. It is a photograph of the night sky, centred on the constellation of Leo. A zoom towards this photograph is followed by a dissolve into a closer view of the constellation, and then into a still closer view of it, over which the word ‘FIN’ appears.

The map of the city and the map of the stars are in several ways opposing signifiers of the film’s organisation. They oppose place and character, for instance: The Sign of Leo is a film about Paris, mapping (if only metaphorically) its river, streets and buildings; or, it is a film about Pierre, who characterises himself in astrological terms and could find on the map the constellation with which he identifies. They oppose culture and nature, also, or – if the film’s last image on earth is significant – the human and the divine. In these notes the first map has served as a guide to the film, read cartographically. If the second map is also to be a guide, our reading will have to be of other things.

Appendix: Pierre’s Paris Walks

1. Pierre walks west along the boulevard Saint Germain (6e), past the rue de Buci and Le Mabillon café, continuing past the statue of Diderot near the place Saint Germain des Prés (now place Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir). He finishes the evening in the place Saint Germain des Prés, at the ball for the 14th of July; the next morning he is outside the Royal Saint Germain (149 boulevard Saint Germain) and after his conversation with Philippe heads east up the boulevard.

2. Pierre leaves the Hôtel de Seine (52 rue de Seine, 6e), goes north up towards river, where he sells books to a trader on the quai des Grands Augustins (where he used to live). He makes a phone call from la Favorite café (3 boulevard Saint Michel, 5e), then heads back to his hotel via the market on the rue de Buci (6e).

3. Pierre leaves the Hôtel de Seine and heads south to the boulevard Saint Germain, where he makes a call from a kiosk. We see him then crossing the rue Soufflot (5e), with the Panthéon in background, and goes up the rue Malebranche to no. 7, the Hotel de Senlis. Having failed to get a room there he comes back across the rue Soufflot, and turns into the boulevard Saint Michel, towards the river. He arrives at the Pont des Arts, looking towards the Pont Neuf, and stays a while.

4. Pierre goes up the avenue de l’Opera (2e) towards the opera house, then calls at an (unidentified) apartment building nearby, after which he sits on a bench opposite a high-class café, then walks across the square in front of the Opéra. He ends the evening at the Café de Flore (172 boulevard Saint Germain).

5. Pierre takes the metro at Saint Germain des Prés, gets out at Pont de Neuilly, and starts walking. He passes the ‘Electrama’ exhibition at the CNIT, La Défense, and continues to Nanterre. Turning from the rue Sadi Carnot into the rue des Carriers, arriving at number 12. Disappointed, he walks back the way he came to Pont de Neuilly, where he tries to take the metro. Instead he has to walk down the avenue de la Grande Armée, past the Arc de Triomphe and onto the avenue des Champs-Elysées, where he sits on a bench awhile. Going down to the river, he walks east along the right bank under the Pont Royal towards the Pont du Carrousel. He goes up to street level and has crossed the Pont Royal to the quai Voltaire. He drinks water from a fontaine Wallace in the place Saint Germain des Prés, goes past the Panthéon to the rue Lhomond (5e), from which he turns into the rue du Pot de Fer, which runs into the rue Mouffetard. Attempts to steal biscuits from the market in the rue Mouffetard and then is on the rue Censier, by the Saint Médard church. He buys bread from a boulangerie nearby, and as night falls has returned to the Saint Germain area, passing several cafés including the Flore, then heads for the Pont Neuf, where he spends the night.

6. From the Pont Neuf Pierre goes up to Les Halles (1e) in search of food, comes back across the bridge and goes to the Hôtel du Pas de Calais, 59 rue des Saints-Péres (6e). From there he walks to his former domicile, 27 quai des Grands Augustins (6e), goes from the Pont Neuf down to the square du Vert Galant, on the easterly point of the Île de la Cité, where he sleeps.

7. At night, Pierre walks past the Mabillon on the boulevard Saint Germain, and on the boulevard Saint Michel past the Quick Sorbonne and the Biarritz. He comes to halt against the wall of the lycée Saint Louis, and will spend the night on the corner of the boulevard Saint Michel and the rue Vaugirard (6e).

8. The next morning, from the boulevard Saint Michel Pierre heads towards the quai de Montebello, goes down to the river’s edge between the Pont au Double and the Petit Pont, from where he looks up at Notre Dame. After walking back and forth around his own shoes, he lies down to rest beside the river. This is where his solitary walking ends.


  1. I say this knowing that T. Jefferson Kline, in his excellent recent book Unravelling French Cinema (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), has more or less argued the opposite, describing the disorientation of the viewer after the New Wave’s ‘obliteration of the old cartography’. But Kline’s principal illustration is A bout de souffle (Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) of which he says the following (page 83): ‘It can certainly be no accident that Godard chose to orient Breathless around a car thief whose nearly aimless itinerary begins in an unnamed city, careens onto a never to be identified French highway only to be violently sidetracked onto a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Nor does it seem unintentional that, with several bullets in his back, Michel should lurch toward his death down Anystreetwhatever in the French capital.’ This is wrong in almost every detail: Michel begins by saying ‘Il faut, Il faut’, declaring his aim, we can assume, to go fetch Patricia in Paris and take her with him to Italy, which is not a ‘nearly aimless itinerary’; the film begins in Marseille, so clearly recognisable that it need not be named; the murder takes place on the RN7, a famous highway (with its own museum, no less: http://www.avignon-et-provence.com/musees/rn7/musee-rn7.htm) that is identified in the newspaper descriptions of Michel as ‘the killer of the RN7’; Michel dies in the rue Campagne Première (recurrently named in the film), not ‘Anystreetwhatever’, but specifically associated with modern painting and with the death of Nicolas de Stael. See Sally Shafto, ‘Leap into the Void: Godard and the Painter’, http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/06/39/godard_de_stael.html.
  2. For a cartographic reading of a related film that does not show a map, see R.-F. Lack, ‘Paris nous appartient: Reading Without a Map’, forthcoming in a special issue on Jacques Rivette of the Australian Journal of French Studies, edited by Douglas Morrey.
  3. In the credit sequence the boat passes under the Pont Neuf and heads towards the Pont Saint Michel. After twenty-two minutes, in a panoramic view over Paris filmed from the top of Notre Dame, a boat is passing under the Pont Saint Michel, heading towards the Petit Pont. After seventy-seven minutes, Pierre is sitting at the edge of the river between the Pont au Double and the Pont de l’Archevêché, and a boat passes behind him, coming from the Petit Pont.

About The Author

Roland-François Lack teaches French and Film at University College London.

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