Director Jacques Rivette just passed away back in January. There’s more interest lately in his 12-hour opus Out 1, but if you’ll settle for just 2.5 hours, this unique early New Wave feature will take you inside Rivette’s world of artists, students, and refugees from political persecution, all in conflict in a sunny Paris of 1958. It’s just as revolutionary as an early Godard or Truffaut, but in a style all Rivette’s own.
Paris Belongs to Us
The Criterion Collection 802
1961 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 141 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Paris nous appartient / Street Date March 8, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Betty Schneider, François Maistre, Giani Esposito, Françoise Prévost, Daniel Crohem, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Marie Robain, Jean Martin.
Cinematography Charles L. Bitsch
Film Editor Denise de Casablanca
Original Music Philippe Arthuys
Written by Jacques Rivette, Jean Grualt
Produced by Claude Chabrol, Roland Nonin
Directed by Jacques Rivette
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The French New Wave directors pulled off quite a cultural palace coup in the late 1950s. Blindsiding the old guard of film directors, the clever rebels struck from an unexpected direction, film criticism. Once established, Jean-Luc Godard spun his cinema away from playful poetry into less playful politics. François Truffaut nailed a breezy style but ended up making more liberated versions of the same movies the old guard might have made. Their best movies still seem fun, fresh, and stimulating.
Other New Wave directors were considered less accessible, which is to say that they were less conventionally entertaining. Alain Resnais, Chris Marker… and now Jacques Rivette. UCLA didn’t do classes on Rivette films and neither were there Rivette festivals. He’s considered the real first New Wave director, yet his launch film was held up for more than two years. Paris Belongs to Us dazzles us with on-the-street scenes that bring back everyday Paris in 1958. But it isn’t ‘fun’ in the same way that the well-known early New Wave pictures are. It doesn’t play games with editing, amuse us with goofy jokes or reference favorite Hollywood genres. It’s personal, but not like a Godard film. In fact, it’s not like anything I’ve seen, except maybe…
The nouvelle vague’s The 400 Blows, Breathless, Shoot the Piano Player and Contempt all have different styles, but they also have fairly conventional stories and characters. Godard’s films are often parodies of genre pictures; his (initial) game was to play poetic games with the grammar of cinema, starting with those jarring jump cuts.
Rivette’s cinematic rebellion isn’t as flashy. He instead addresses fine points of narrative, stripping away theatrical and dramatic conventions, and enabling more complex relationships between characters by allowing them to be inconsistent and unpredictable, like people in real life. The young heroine of Paris Belongs to Us strains to understand a mystery, perhaps a conspiracy as it affects a group of struggling, disaffected artists. But this is no Hollywood picture with a patterned scenario, where characters drop into neat slots and events dovetail into a tidy denoument. Nothing she learns can be established for certain — neither the specifics of the mystery nor the certainty of anything we learn about most of the characters. Rivette instead achieves a feeling of reality through a narrative complicated with layers of uncertainty and doubt. The characters have an unusual depth, even the ones that reveal little about themselves.
I’m not sure a synopsis would help with Paris Belongs to Us so I instead offer a quick run-down of characters. Paris student Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) meets a mysterious young woman in the next room, learns that a Spanish musician named Juan has died, and becomes involved with the friends of her brother, Pierre (François Maistre). Rumors suggest that Juan may have been killed by Franco’s falangist assassins. Juan was involved with an American, Terry Yordan (Françoise Prévost), whose affections have become split between two men. Play director Gérard Lenz (Giani Esposito) tries to stage a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles. The very strange American Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem) is a Pulitzer prizewinning author. Having fled to Paris to escape the McCarthy witch hunt, Philip is convinced that some kind of vast conspiracy is afoot, that other people who knew Juan may be in danger, especially Gérard. But Anne can’t make sense of these alarming stories – Philip gives her nothing of substance to work with, Pierre tells her to not take anything seriously, and the openly hostile Terry refuses to share what seems to be an inexhaustible supply of dark secrets. A tape recording of some of Juan’s guitar music seems to be important, so Anne drops her studies and sets out to find it. Every new fact she learns contradicts what she thinks she already knows. Anne talks to a fellow at a café (Jean-Luc Godard) who says that all the paranoia is nonsense. Yet Terry and Philip insist that more lives are in danger, and allude to a vast conspiracy that, of course, circumstances will not allow them to detail. All is disorder and doubt, and for Anne, emotional quicksand. She has to ask herself if she cares about this mess, too.
My woefully inadequate description can’t really give one an inkling of the film’s riches. It leaves out Rivette’s marvelous ability to keep a complex narrative afloat in an atmosphere of total ambiguity. A conventional mystery movie that can’t establish simple facts is considered incompetent, but the same quality here seems insightful. Typical mysteries clarify, but this film reminds us how real life refuses such easy simplification. I’d tell you to forget all about it, that it’s just too complicated, but that would make me sound too much like one of the maddening characters from Paris Belongs to Us.
Rivette wisely gives us one character we can hang on to, the delightfully fresh but woefully uninformed Anne. This extremely likeable identification figure wants to help people and wishes no harm to anybody. Her only personal interest is a growing crush on Gérard, who redirects her interest into helping with his play.
In his featurette comments on the disc, critic Richard Neupert details Rivette’s narrative play with mystery and contradictions. Poor Anne cannot nail down a single fact. One moment Philip is nervously telling her that everybody is doomed, and a minute later he tells her to forget what he said, that it’s not important. Various people including Anne’s own brother allude to ‘larger powers in collusion’ but refuse to divulge their exact nature. Is anybody honest with anybody? The imperious Terry is a wall of ice. She holds everyone in contempt save for Philip. He seems sincere with his fantasy that his political blacklisting is part of a bigger Mabuse-like plan. He comes off as openly paranoid, yet it is true that at least one person has died.
Anne crisscrosses Paris in response to various calls for alarm. Rivette seems to know that we’re waiting for an ‘Important Event’ event to mark the beginning of a conventional Act Two. But everything is insubstantial. Every suspicion and accusation is balanced by an opposite counter-argument. Nobody will show their cards even as events cause a panic. If Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe were in Anne’s shoes, he’d walk away and tell everybody to go to hell.
Neupert makes an excellent case relating the apparent disorganization and confusion to Jacques Rivette’s personal worldview. Even the film’s main title contradicts itself — Paris does/doesn’t belong to us. The inconsistent Anne skips out on an important school test, to pursue the play and Gérard. She describes Shakespeare’s Pericles as a fascinating group of characters and scenes that refuse to cohere into a unified play, which might apply equally to Paris Belongs to Us. Rivette is himself ‘staging’ a film that sees reality as an interpersonal chaos that defeats efforts to make rational sense. Terry keeps both Philip and Gérard at a remove. She might easily locate the missing guitar tape, but can’t be bothered to look and isn’t willing to explain why. A last minute ‘explanation’ by one of the characters is anything but convincing. What really happened?
Paris Belongs to Us is completely engaging. Despite what I’ve said above it’s not a shaggy dog story where we feel cheated. Just the same, we’re concerned that Anne doesn’t properly take into account a few things she has seen with her own eyes. Could Sherlock Holmes assemble the few known facts into something coherent?
For instance, are we willing to believe the ‘official story’ of the fate of Gérard, considering how happy and carefree he is when we last see him on the street?
The scene with a corpse on the bed is odd. Nobody feels a need to report a body or inform the authorities? We’re tempted to think the moment has been staged (by a stage director?) to god-game Anne. But to what purpose?
And what about that mysterious quick cutaway to a murder scene, the one that interrupts the film’s formal surface? No other moment in Paris Belongs to Us breaks with Anne’s first-person observations. Is it Anne’s sudden flash of what she suspects might be happening?
At the finish, how can we possibly take Terry’s word for what happened? After two hours of obstructing Anne’s attempts to learn what’s going on, Terry dispassionately spells things out in about twenty words. They’re pretty potent words, considering that they’re a confession of murder, or a mistaken-motive murder, or shooting horses out of season, or something. Miss a part of a subtitle, and Paris Belongs to Us advances from mystery into total incomprehension.
Rivette sure knows how to pour on the mystery. Among the final shots of Anne at the country pond is an unexplained shot of the Seine, back in Paris. What’s up with that? It’s a bit like Kafka, but on an interpersonal plane. Is anybody really committed to anybody else? How can they pretend such concern and then be so cynical? Philip is a famous writer; can we really be sure that his wild fears are groundless? The only thing we do know is that people are actually dying. Maybe.
To my surprise, the confusion makes us more interested in the story, not less. Helping is the fact that all this takes place in the amazing Paris of 1958. The B&W images take us down a hundred streets that only someone familiar with the city would know. Real Francophiles will surely make additional associations with the characters after learning what districts they live in.
We accept Rivette’s vivid characters as 3-dimensional people with depths we can’t see. We’re curious to learn more about them. His cast must have had to concentrate to comprehend what’s going on at any particular point in the story. We care about Betty Schneider’s Anne immediately, while Françoise Prévost’s Terry is a frustratingly uncooperative beauty and a genuine femme fatale. As the blacklisted American, Daniel Crohem has been described as representing Sterling Hayden — the contrite actor-informer who spent quite a bit of time in Paris. But Crohem’s performance reminds me more of Dan Duryea. Giani Esposito is charming as the theater director, and François Maistre is deceptively ‘neutral’ as Anne’s somewhat undefined brother.
Paris Belongs to The Seventh Victim
I’m more than aware that my idea of filmic analysis too readily falls back on relating films to other films; I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done well had I pursued critical studies at UCLA. Just the same, I have an angle on Paris Belongs to Us that I haven’t read anywhere else. Paris Belongs to Us traces much of the storyline of Val Lewton & Mark Robson’s horror-noir The Seventh Victim, but transplanted to Paris and injected with a heavy dose of existentialism.
Just as with the naïve Mary Gibson of the Val Lewton film, Anne Goupil undertakes a frustrating search in the maze of the city. A group of new acquaintances is present to help her. They lecture her, condescend to her, and to some degree exploit her. Anne is attracted to a man who is in love with a slightly older woman, an experienced sophisticate who has other admirers under her spell. Both Mary and Anne find it impossible to nail down specific facts about the mystery. Some individuals seem to be profiting from keeping things a secret, or they have ulterior motives they aren’t sharing. Others that should be concerned are not. Anne loses moral traction on her mission, as does Mary.
The two stories share a vaguely defeatist worldview — like the poet Jason Hoag in Seventh Victim, the motivated and energetic Gérard also relates to tragic classical literature and talks about the inevitability of failure. And finally, mysterious suicides figure in both stories. A despairing woman lives next door to Anne, who corresponds to the tragic Mimi in Seventh Victim. The films are very different, yet they align in too many respects to ignore. Instead of an unlikely group of Satanists, we get an unproven political conspiracy. Where the Lewton film has instances of iffy acting and foggy direction, Paris Belongs to Us is sharp and specific.
In terms of people struggling against a conspiracy that may be a figment of their imagination, Paris Belongs to Us also resembles Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way, another movie about social outsiders overreacting/under-reacting to a perceived threat. That movie maintains a similar paranoid ambiguity almost to the finish, before suddenly bringing everything into clarity.
We’re told that the daringly original Paris Belongs to Us didn’t meet with success. The New Wave hits were embraced as fun communal experiences for the insider film crowd, but as Richard Neupert notes, Rivette’s film doesn’t even have a sense of humor. It is also possible that the long delay from 1958 to 1961 made it seem visually obsolete. Rivette contributed to films by his colleagues, but his own work would be a series of career bumps and stall-outs. He ended up editing Cahiers du Cinema while struggling with filmmaking. For me Paris Belongs to Us is the most exciting French film since I turned on to the broader variety of Chris Marker and Alain Resnais pictures. Rivette belongs in their company, in the intellectual wing of the New Wave. I can see how Rivette’s film could be misinterpreted by impatient filmgoers. Unlike a Godard, it doesn’t scream ‘different’ or ‘rebellious’ in every scene. The revolutionary factor is its mysterious, disturbing narrative style.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Paris Belongs to Us offers a dazzlingly sharp and clean scan of this engrossing, maddening New Wave classic. Filmed in rich B&W 35mm, it’s a joy to watch in that ‘time machine’ way — we seem always to be walking in some interesting back street in Paris. The only tourist locale I caught is when Anne takes a walk to clear her head, and strolls past the Arc de Triomphe. But we stare at the walls, the curbs and the cars in Rivette’s pre-Internet, pre- McDonalds Paris. I recognize a Simca car parked in one scene. The dangerous Terry Yordan drives a sleek MG convertible… just watching her tool around the cobbled Paris streets in that beautiful car is like a fairy tale. It’s an accidental iconic vision, like Mike Hammer’s ’53 Corvette prowling under the Angels’ Flight funicular in Kiss Me Deadly.
Paris Belongs to Us also features an eccentric musical score, with interesting experimental sounds and even occasional choral effects. 1958? 1961? This is too sophisticated to be pinned to a particular time.
Critic Richard Neupert’s visual essay helps point out the unique weirdnesses in the movie. He brings up an association that I also made upon hearing the title and seeing the still of Gérard walking atop a building: René Clair’s 1923 science fiction film Paris qui dort, about a scientific ‘conspiracy’ that freezes all life in the city. Essayist Luc Sante offers much the same observations in his liner notes, but gives us biographical details on Rivette when we’d like to hear more theories about what’s happening in the film. I wish the extras had even more analysis and contrasting interpretations. Most Criterion discs have TV interviews with famous directors, so I wonder if Rivette may not have received such media attention. If ever a film were capable of being interpreted in more than one way, this is it. Rivette took a wild idea in a wild direction. Be prepared for an intense, demanding film experience.
Also on Criterion’s disc is Jacques Rivette’s early (1956) New Wave short subject, Le coup de berger. The highly entertaining half-hour is a wicked little morality play about infidelity with some delicious domestic-noir plot twists. If this is all Rivette’s doing, he should have attempted his own Alfred Hitchcock games, as did some of his fellow New-Wavers. Reportedly based on a story by Roald Dahl, we watch as the marvelously expressive leading lady Virginie Vitry plots to put a fast one over on her husband. Jean-Claude Brialy makes his very first screen appearance in a featured role. The select club of Cahiers film critics was indeed a unit — in the short subject’s final party scene can be spotted critics & future directors Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Paris Belongs to Us Blu-ray
Movie: Excellent but demanding
Supplements: Video interview with author Richard Neupert, Jacques Rivette’s 1956 short film Le coup du berger, featuring cameos by fellow French New Wave directors Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, and François Truffaut; an essay by critic Luc Sante.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 13, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson