"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).