Thursday, October 11, 2012

Paris Belongs to Us (1960): Rivette Redeemed

The first thing that really struck me about Paris Belongs to Us (original French title: Paris Nous Appartient) was that I wasn’t bored at all throughout its 2 hour, 20 minute-running time. I was surprised because I’d previously seen two other very acclaimed films by the director, Jacques Rivette - Celine et Julie vont en Bateau and La Belle Noiseuse - and they both seemed like the kind of film the word ‘boring’ was invented for. With Celine, I liked the first 20 minutes; it was just the three tiresome hours that followed which bothered me. With Noiseuse it was the entire five hours of it that made me want to go to sleep.

So Paris Belongs to Us was a pleasant surprise; a very good film from a director I was ready to write off. It’s immeasurably aided by the central performance of Betty Schneider as Anne. She’s barely out of her teens, is open-hearted and credulous, and doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. In her gaucheness she reminded me a little of Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, so it was pleasing to spend time with her. Her role is nicely written as well: she’s a down-to-earth character who anchors the movie with her bemusement whenever others start getting too mystical or mysterious.

Most of the movie is an interesting merry-go-round of one-to-one meetings between Anne and those other characters. Juan, a Spanish friend of a group of artistic types in contemporary Paris, has committed suicide. Philip, who is supposed to be an American ex-pat in the city (but is played by French actor, Daniel Crohem) tells her that their mutual acquaintance Gerard (Giani Esposito) is in danger of meeting the same fate i.e. being driven to suicide. Anne, worried about him as only an innocent like her could be, tries to investigate, whilst also helping Gerard out with his staging of Pericles. Wikipedia says ‘The plot centres around a group of actors rehearsing Shakespeare's Pericles for a performance that never happens’ but I actually thought the play was not a major feature of the film - maybe only 20 minutes of the running time are devoted to it- so I’m not overly concerned with any possible parallels between it and the film’s story-line. Though this main part of the film is meandering, there are many short scenes (not a few ponderous long ones as with something like Antonioni’s L’Aventurra of the same year) and there is lots of dialogue which, even when it’s not pushing the plot forward, is interesting for its delineation of character and character inter-action.

It’s also easy to like this film because Paris looks amazing in it. All French directors of that period had an automatic advantage over their foreign contemporaries in that they simply had to step out into the streets of their capital, turn on a camera, and they were already making something beautiful: Paris in the 50’s and 60’s surely wins the title for most photogenic city ever. Here there are a lot of exterior shots, many of them in the early morning when the streets are mostly deserted and the light is very atmospheric. Rivette I think shoots the city in a distinctive way, and outdoes Truffaut, Godard et al in this respect at least. Paris Belongs to Us is probably the greatest showcase the city ever had.

In the last half hour of the film, it seems to turn into a different, more dramatic/melodramatic kind of beast. Some of this works well, some doesn’t. I like the way Anne frantically searches for Gerard because of an alarming note he has left her. The drama is built up, then punctured, but that’s not the end of it: there’s another twist. And the final 10-15 minutes to the film add a few more strange twists. I had to re-watch these scenes to check that I hadn’t missed anything, but still wasn’t entirely satisfied with the logic behind them. However, I don’t think that does serious harm to the film. Instead, I was left feeling that Paris Belongs to Us was like one of David Lynch’s best films - Lost Highway perhaps - many decades before he started making them. It leaves you scratching your head, but also wanting to get into a long conversation with anyone else who’s seen it.

As for the title: yes, I’d like to know what it means too.

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