Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"There was a demon that lived in the air"

As major French Directors of the 1960s go, Claude Lelouch's reputation hasn't really stood the test of time. While his peers - Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, Malle and Rivette amongst others - have enjoyed fluctuating critical opinion, each of them seems assured of a place in the pantheon of important directors. Not so Lelouch, who has continued to make profitable, fitfully entertaining productions for more than four decades now. But then it was more a fluke of timing than anything else that meant he was ever grouped with the directors of the Nouvelle Vague. He had come from advertising - his films all bear the coldly stylish sheen of a man always looking to sell - and his mindset was always more commercial than even Truffaut, the most accessible and human of that generation of French filmakers, would have contemplated. They had all been critics first, and their films are all intellectual to some extent, desperate to use cinema somehow, to widen its scope, to deepen its impact, desperate for importance. Lelouch never seemed to share this desperation, which is perhaps why his reputation suffers. That and the fact that much of his output is solidly pedestrian.

Viewed today, his most celebrated and best remembered film from that era: "Un Homme et Une Femme" (1966) seems a lovely curio. Beautifully shot, it is a lifestyle film, almost all style without any substance, beautiful people - stars Anouk Aimee and Jean-Louis Trintignant - lovingly pictured in attractive locations, with a memorable soundtrack and some ostentatious technique. Lelouch always had a great eye, and there are some lush, captivating scenes, but none of it adds up to much more than an almost Mills & Boon style romance. In 1966, its modish stylishness dazzled many viewers and it won the Palm D'Or at Cannes and the Best Foreign film Oscar. Its commercial success gave Lelouch a bankability none of his peers could match and many of his later films recall it. He tended to concentrate on love storys, and his visual style was always loud and showy, his good eye for colour and composition never deserting him.

The film I think bolsters his reputation in a way none of his more canonical work manages is "C'etait un rendez-vous", a short from 1976. At the time, Lelouch risked claiming credit for the film, since he had broken so many laws in making it, and he was arrested though later released without charges when it was first screened. After those initial screenings it was more or less withdrawn and a cloud of mystery formed around it. It occasionally screened, unannounced, before Lelouch's features. VHS tapes circulated between knowledgable buffs, it would be shown at Motor Fairs. Its reputation grew. It became legendary.

A nearly nine minute unbroken shot of a high-speed drive through Paris at 5.30am, the film remains an unmatched dose of pure adrenaline, more thrilling than any movie carchase I've ever seen or racing game I've ever played. Rumours have circulated for years that it was shot from a Ferrari 275 driven by a French F1 driver (coincidentally Trintignant's job in "Un Homme et Une Femme"), but Lelouch has stated that he was the driver and that the car was his own Mercedes with the camera on a gyro mounted on the bonnet. The engine sounds and the screeching tyres, the squealing brakes, the clunking gear shifts were all overdubbed from a Ferrari, apparently. It doesn't matter. What matters is that it is real, that the pedestrians we see the car fly past, the pigeons it scatters, the many Citroens it overtakes were all real. The curb it jumps was real. If you know Paris at all, then its fun to match the drive to familar geography, to see the streets narrow near the end as the car climbs into Montmarte, the trees shading the road, the headlights reflected in shaded car windows becoming smeared speedlines of white at the edges of the picture. Reality has its own pure beauty when captured at the right instant, and this film is beautiful in its truth, its verite singlemindedness. In saying that, Lelouch can't help himself and has to introduce a little bit of narrative at the end, giving it all a point. Its faintly cheesy but I love the ending too. Even if Lelouch's many other films are disregarded by posterity, then "Rendez-vous" (as it is most commonly known in English) will survive*, I think.
This is why:

*It's already survived being edited down to 5 minutes or so and then used by Snow Patrol, of all people, as one of their videos. And being ripped off mercilessly by this Nissan advert (which is nowhere near as good).



Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I'm kind of shocked at how shit the Nissan one is, it just looks so slow and dull. I don't think all the cuts help, and the noise of the car is just pathetic next to the Ferrari overdub.

It looks like a video a geek made with Gran Turismo.

The whole camera strapped to the bonnet thing...where did that start? I remember the same deal in French Connection which was before Rendez-Vouz...but did Friedkin nick it from somewhere?

10:39 pm  
Blogger David N said...

I really don't know - maybe some racing movie?

I love the camera-on-bonnet shot in Taxi Driver when Travis quickly pulls away from watching the Senator and you can see people in the crowd - non-extras - clearly staring at the camera. Its and incredibly effective technique.

The funniest thing about the Nissan ad is all the trouble they go to just to clear the roads, betraying a total lack of understanding of what works about Rendez-Vous...

11:09 pm  
Blogger Beezer B said...

Never seen that in full before. It's excellent. After having my "head out to the countryside" driving lesson an hour ago I think I can appreciate it a bit more, even if todays cars are far tamer beasts.

I don't know Paris well at all but I've driven the parts around 7 minutes in countless times. Project Gotham 2 on Xbox. Ross too I think.

It most of anything reminds me of that game. More than any film or real life, but when you do that in a game you tend to clip a building every 5th corner which slows you down a little and breaks the illusion completely. Excellent.

3:42 pm  
Blogger Ross said...

Oh yeah, I know what this is now, David - I think you pointed the fish to it in an e-mail a good many months ago.

I didn't think of Gotham when I watched it - for all the hypereality of the car models and sound effects, and despite the realistic mapping and architecture of the racing backdrops, we still aren't at the stage where games can replicate that experience - you can't have pedestrians as the game would end up banned in most places. If you can't hit them it would look unrealistic, as the public would have to perform superhuman feats to avoid the motors chuntering along like a rocket.

But that's the nearest I've come to it, not having visited Paris yet, and not yet knowing how to drive.

I haven't seen the Nissan thing and don't really want to, I've seen enough bad car ads for several life-times.

11:09 pm  

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