Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Celebrating Bastille Day: French Films All Week
Debut Film of: Jacques Rivette, director
By Roderick Heath
“Just because you’re paranoid,” goes the saying, “doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” The debut film of Jacques Rivette, the most wilfully eccentric of the early Nouvelle Vague directors, could well be described as an exegesis on that theme. Rivette, a filmmaker never in a hurry to get anywhere (his 1971 film Out 1 runs 13 hours), only occasionally indulges the look-at-me editing and referencing that spiced up the other eruptive early films of the movement in Paris Belongs to Us, begun in 1957, but released in 1960. Rivette is deceptively becalmed, even gentle, whilst being coolly, almost cruelly implacable.
Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) is an unshaped ingénue studying English literature whose cramming is interrupted one day by the sound of sobbing from a neighbouring flat in her student boarding house. Investigating, Anne finds a distraught woman who knows Anne’s brother Pierre (François Maistre), and, in her grief, talks about the murder of a man named Juan. She seems to think the murder has been committed by some cabal and predicts that all of them, including Anne and Pierre, will fall victim. Anne tries to calm the woman and dashes to get her a glass of water, but returns to find her composed, smiling, and pushing Anne politely out of her room. Invited by the shifty, alienated Pierre to a party of his lefty bohemian friends, Anne soon finds that a man named Juan really is dead. A guitarist of a level of talent that no one can agree on, Juan’s thought to have committed suicide. Present at the party is a boozy, angry, American writer, Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), who had to flee the States because of the blacklist, his ex-wife Terry Yordan (Françoise Prévost), and her current boyfriend, aspiring theatre director Gérard Lenz (Giani Esposito). Later, when Anne encounters Philip, a mysterious hit-and-run death disturbs him sufficiently to make him drag Anne along in fleeing through the streets. He speaks of a plot that will inevitably cause Gérard’s death, an event that perhaps only Anne can forestall.
Anne, inclined to take this stuff seriously after two such similar and yet obscure encounters, tries to alert Gérard to his apparently grim situation. The young, ardent director laughs it off. When his lack of finance means difficulties in keeping the cast of his dream production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre together, he drafts Anne to play the role of Marina. As Anne digs deeper, she uncovers sure evidence that something is going on, but what? Is the rootless, knowing Terry a kind of spiritual succubus, bringing death or ruin to every man she comes near? Or are they all pawns in some monumental game? What has the economist De Georges (Jean-Marie Robain), for whom Pierre does “some odd jobs,” to do with it? Why is Juan’s sister, a former radical, now living in De Georges’ apartment as his infantile mistress? Is Gérard’s sudden success in getting Pericles staged by a major theatre really a big break, or a cunning ploy to destroy him? And why is Juan’s legendary last recording, an improvisation that Gérard was desperate to have for the play, so hard to find and so seemingly close to the heart of the mystery?
Rivette’s dark thesis perceives the alt-culture of its era as assailed, self-deluding, and terminally self-destructive, trapped between blocks of power and making the situation worse with its own hysteria. Philip, the film’s prophet of hellish entrapment, lounges in his one-room apartment surrounded by his own artwork, dozens of modernist squiggles that resemble evil, gnawing, gnomic heads; he gives one to Anne, who soon enough sits peering at it in her own room, his demons infesting in her mind, too. Easy to see then why this film never stirred the same orgasmic odes to coolness as Breathless (1960). And yet it’s both the most awkward and possibly the most artistically and intellectually advanced of all the early Nouvelle Vague films. Paris Belongs to Us is as deeply, even apocalyptically, political a film as Godard’s The Little Soldier (1963) or Week-End (1967), perhaps even more so, but in a dissembling, allusive fashion, exploring the dire state of things through parable and paranoia. It takes no refuge in the hip and the righteous. The film’s references—McCarthyism, Franco, Hitler, the Resistance—invoke an age of insidious ills and underground struggle, with the borders between creeds and causes becoming porous and disturbingly homogenised.
In another sense, it’s not political at all, but a statement about art and the lot of artists in the modern world. The artists, from the passive and impotent, like Philip, to the most seemingly energetic and idealistic, like Gérard, are tortured, pushed by forces beyond their control, torn by conflicting desires both to commit (that great godhead that Sartre urged in his On Literature) and to create, consuming them in the process. Even the most superficial glance at Rivette’s oeuvre reveals that the motif of the band of players putting on a play, usually a work of the classical canon, that will never be performed is one of his recurring gambits; artistic endeavour being both eternally new and ancient, evergreen, and ever endangered. Here, Pericles, is critiqued early on by Anne and an actor friend as a rambling collage of great words, which is precisely what Gérard loves in it. Pericles’ connection on a spiritual level is an observation that shines a light on the ideals of Paris Belongs to Us, too, as its peripatetic characters roam the world and yet can’t escape each other. Juan’s elusive recording becomes both something of a holy grail and another wild goose, an emblem of the beauty of creation that becomes lost in the tangles of design. And yet, in a provisional fashion, the film also makes the case for creativity and the power of the intellect, of perspective, to define the world over all other influences—for good and ill.
The title’s allusion is opaque: who the “us” is could be the theoretical conspiracy, or the energetic young artists and students, or the people in general. Either way it’s contradicted, and yet also solidified, by the quote from Charles Peguy at the start, “Paris belongs to nobody.” It’s not just the city, either, but the marketplace of ideas and aesthetics that it’s always represented, as well as the crucial crossroads of political and philosophical movements. Everyone and no one owns life. And yet the narrative’s labyrinthine descent revolves around Philip’s conviction—a conviction that Terry shares—that a grand conspiracy is in place by a hidden society to turn the world into “one big, jolly, concentration camp.” The idea eventually proves to be something of an intellectual luxury that Philip has conjured and temporarily infects others with that offers the strange reassurance well familiar to us—the conspiracy theory, the notion that the truth is explicable but in a great, hidden whole.
That things really are going on—De Georges really is trying to wipe out people more talented than him, and Juan really was killed by Falangist agents—at first seems to substantiate, but finally corrodes such a notion, revealing a world teeming with threat and intrigue and, often, hopeless and irreducible confusion and shapelessness. “It’s easy to justify everything with a single idea, including his (Philip’s) inaction and cowardice. The nightmares were just alibis,” Terry offers in a final summary. That the alibi is powerful enough to stir Terry to commit murder reveals the danger in such solipsism. It’s a vital and powerful indictment of the retreat of the modern mind into the fringes of conspiracy theory and fragmented blocks rather than deal with problems at hand; people become implicated in destroying themselves and others. Gérard is both victim of plots and also of character—he’s tried to kill himself once before—and a situation, as Anne, who sets out to save him, finally rejects that role and precipitates crisis. All actions feed into every other action.
Although Rivette’s camera roams all over Paris, the city becomes more defined by the breathless little boxes most of the characters live in and streets at dawn that are deserted, zombie-movie-ready. The few expansive moments come thanks to Gérard, as when he and Anne converse within sight of Notre Dame, and later, when he triumphantly walks the theatre roof as he regards the city. Late in the film, when Anne receives a note from Gérard threatening suicide by midnight if she doesn’t call him and it’s already nearly 1 a.m., Anne settles in weary confusion by a window as the sound of the clashing TVs and radios in the apartment building congeals into a strange electronic menagerie. Along the way, there’s a scene incorporating the Tower of Babel sequence from Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis (many of Lang’s silent films, with their quivering air of sinister influence, are a definite touchstone for this movie), with all its allusive evocations of both grotesque capitalist-industrial presumption (and that film’s dictatorial elite) and its fear of apocalypse and disintegration as the punishment for its hubris. “The Wormwood star approaches,” warns one of Juan’s associates in one of the recurring moments of terrible pronouncement. But it’s not to be taken so seriously. “I love a femme fatale!” Gerard jests when Anne suggests Terry could get him killed, a moment that feels like a poke in the ribs to the whole enterprise.
As an aesthetic and conceptual statement, Paris Belongs to Us is strong, even triumphant. Its prognosticative wits are remarkable, all the more so for predicting and possibly influencing the subsequent concerns of directors like Antonioni (mysteries that go nowhere, a la L’Avventura, 1960, and the tortures of discerning truth from impression in a politicised context in Blow-Up, 1966), De Palma (the same hothouse paranoia infests Greetings, 1968, and much of his subsequent work), David Lynch (for whose career of rabbit-hole descents this could almost be draft thesis), and indeed a vast sector of the modern canon. As a dramatic work, it doesn’t quite work as a well. Rivette’s style is both more intimate and classical than the other New Wavers, with a carefully gliding camera that moves like an attentive listener; yet Rivette’s also less assured in eliciting performances and maintaining pace, and he slaps on a dissonantly corny score. His private mood seems detached from the efforts to conjure urgent, Lang-and-Hitchcock dread, finding more immediacy in watching birds skate across a dawn pond in the affecting final image, as if, like Gérard, he seeks something more humane, a way out of this cold scenario. Schneider is no Anna Karina, with little facility for illustrating her movement from blasé innocent to crumpled adult, and so her engagement with the other characters, especially Gérard, isn’t as crucial as it needs to be. For buffs, there’s a funny cameo by Godard as a café lecher.
Troubling, unsteady, and strange, Paris Belongs to Us is nonetheless a vital movie.