Whether by accident or design, French filmmaker Jacques Rivette is probably the least known member of the influential Nouvelle Vague movement of the late fifties though, like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol, he too was a former writer and film critic for Cashiers du Cinema. He even started production on his first feature length film, Paris Belongs to Us (French title: Paris Nous Appartient), in 1957, before Chabrol, Truffaut and Godard began work on what would become their universally acclaimed debuts of, respectively, Le Beau Serge (1958), The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless (1960). Yet, despite the artistic and liberating impact the latter three films had on world cinema, Paris Belongs to Us might be the most ambitious, challenging and intellectually provocative film of the whole movement. It is also the darkest, waltzing toward an imagined or possibly real oblivion. The Homeland Security System would give it a code orange classification.
Due to the guerilla-style filmmaking approach of Rivette – he borrowed Chabrol’s camera, used film stock loaned by Truffaut and Cahiers de Cinema, and worked around the schedules of his volunteer cast and crew (some were paid after the film’s release) – it is no wonder it took him almost four years to complete his movie. Paris Belongs to Us eventually premiered in France in 1960 but arrived after the fame boat had already sailed with the other New Wavers on board. And it didn’t even show up in the U.S. or many other countries until 1962 when Godard, Chabrol, Malle, Truffaut and others were already well established names on the art house film circuit.
Of course, if Paris Belongs to Us, had been completed and released in 1957, nothing probably would be any different now in regards to the Nouvelle Vague’s legacy because Rivette’s 141 minute epic (some versions run only 120 minutes) is the least accessible and uncommercial of the lot. Unlike the exhilarating freshness and spontaneity of something like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows or Godard’s Breathless, Rivette’s film is a dark, threatening cloud in comparison. In mood and attitude, it looks backward, not forward, to the grim political realities of the fifties when McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia was pervasive. Overall, the film seems closer in spirit to Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and other American noirs of that era and its increasingly doom-ladden narrative prefigures such fatalistic ‘70s thrillers as The Parallax View (1974) and Night Moves (1975).
Set in Paris’s bohemian underground, Rivette’s film focuses on a diverse group of Left Bank artists, musicians, political activists and poseurs. Among them is Anne (Betty Schneider), a literature student who falls in with this crowd after her older brother Pierre (Francois Maistre) invites her to a party. While there, she becomes intrigued with a visiting American named Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), a Pulitzer-Prize winning author with a shadowy past, and Gerard (Giani Esposito), an avant-garde theater director who is trying to stage his version of Shakespeare’s Pericles.
Anne also learns about the recent suicide of Juan, a musician who had close ties to both Philip and Gerard. Soon Anne finds herself being drawn in deeper when Philip reveals that Juan was murdered by order of some secret worldwide organization. Then, further suspicions are aroused by Juan’s former lover Terry (Francoise Prévost), who gets her hooks into Gerard while informing Anne that she may be in danger too. But danger of what? At first, this group seems too self-absorbed and fashionably pessimistic to take seriously. Their belief that some conspiracy is afoot and manipulating their lives comes across like unfounded, paranoid ravings to Anne. In time, her innocence and naviete are stripped away as sinister events occur and the line between the real and the imagined becomes blurred.
One of the most striking things about Paris Belongs to Us is Rivette’s refusal to play by the rules of the standard thriller formula. With two exceptions, all of the deaths and murders occur offscreen and Rivette chooses instead to focus on Anne’s growing sense of entrapment. This isn’t good news for genre enthusiasts, many of whom would find this film as exciting as watching paint dry (an assessment that Gene Hackman’s character in Night Moves made about Eric Rohmer’s films). And I admit I had some difficulty adjusting to Rivette’s dense, multi-layered intertwining of characters and subplots at first but once Anne begins her search for a missing musical recording that is crucial to Gerard’s play, I became engaged with the maze-like structure.
The film is like a cinematic brain teaser, a celluloid chess game…and the strange thing is, after it was over, I felt the urge to watch it again immediately, even though some sequences in the movie felt interminable. On a narrative level, Rivette is probably closer to Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad) than any other Nouvelle Vague director but his cool, detached tone mirrors the films of Antonioni. There is also a subtle playfulness at work. One of the more striking examples of this occurs in the final third when Anne sees Gerard on the street after believing he killed himself and confronts him and Terry with his suicide note which he denies writing. As Anne turns away in disgust from the couple, the camera pulls back and up to follow her departure from the scene and for a second, we anticipate an ambiguous Third Man-like fadeout to “The End.” Instead, Rivette cuts to the title card “Babel” followed by an excerpt from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which is then revealed to be the movie that Anne and others are watching at a private film party later that evening.
Much of Paris Belongs to Us is open to interpretation but there is no mistaking Rivette’s interest in the duality of things. Even the film’s title takes on a double meaning after a contradictory opening quote from French poet Charles Peguy that declares “Paris belongs to no one.” Rivette’s film bears this out since it is not the young intellectuals or scene-making bohemians who triumph in the end or even some all-controlling worldwide organization out of Orwell’s 1984. The viewer is left twisting in the wind. The title could refer to the new generation of filmmakers who took to the streets of Paris like Rivette in the late fifties. Or it could be, as the liner notes for BFI DVD state, that “Paris belongs to those [actors] who spend the summer there preparing for the winter season.” It could also refer to the power mongers of the world, those who seek to control everything.
In some ways, Rivette’s film predicts the end of the Nouvelle Vague through the delineation of its characters. Gerard, the theatre director, could easily be Rivette’s alter ego, stubbornly refusing to give in to outside pressures and financiers who want to “dumb down” and commercialize his art. And Anne could be the spirit of the New Wave, whose optimism and adventurous nature is eventually crushed by the system into a predictable pattern of conformity.
It may sound much too cerebral or pretentious to contemplate from my description but any French New Wave fan should give Paris Belongs to Us a look because it does share some unlikely but appealing similarities with such films as Breathless and The 400 Blows from its on-the-fly location shooting by film critic turned cinematographer Charles Bitsch (lots of gorgeous Parisian locales such as the Arch de Triumph, the Seine, the Left Bank) to its non-traditional narrative approach to its documentary-like portrait of a specific social and cultural moment in time. There are also cameo appearances by Chabrol, Godard, Jacques Demy, and even Rivette himself.
Jean-Claude Brialy, one of the rising stars of the Nouvelle Vague, has a minor role and Francoise Prévost makes an alluring and enigmatic femme fatale, as deadly and inscrutable as Jane Greer in Out of the Past. In addition, Giani Esposito as Gerard brilliantly captures the conflicted director whose open, mercurial nature masks a volatile and troubling artistic temperament. Best of all, Betty Schneider’s performance as Anne provides the necessary humanity needed to ground what could be an exercise in abstraction. Godard put the film on his “Ten Best List for 1961” and Truffaut wrote, “Rivette was more of a cinema nut than any of us, and his film proves that he is more of a moviemaker than any of us as well.” Truffaut also showed a fragment of it in The 400 Blows during a sequence when Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) attends the cinema.
Paris Belongs to Us is now considered by many film critics and scholars to be one of the key works of the Nouvelle Vague. One critic called it “one of cinema’s nearest equivalents to Kafka” and the film reveals quite a lot about Rivette’s thematic obsessions and methods which would become more refined in the ensuing years. Rivette continued to make movies his own way without compromise up until 2009 (he died in 2016). Most of his work is experimental, unconventional and defiantly uncommercial with few exceptions; The Nun (La Religieuse, 1966) starring Anna Karina might be his most accessible film despite its controversial and often perverse content and La Belle Noiseuse in 1991 was a rare art house hit. How he has managed to stay in the game, making movies all these years that probably never saw a profit, is a mystery but an inspirational one.
I recommend you take a few shots of expresso, open your mind and plunge into Paris Belongs to Us. It was previously available as a PAL import from England released by the BFI (British Film Institute) in 2006, which included an informative, illustrated booklet with essays by Tom Milne and Louis Marcorelles, an introduction by Rivette scholar Jonathan Romney and the 1957 Rivette short, Le Coup de berger. An even better option arrived in March 2016 with The Criterion Collection release on Blu-ray and DVD. It boasted a new 2K digital restoration plus an interview with film scholar Richard Neupert (A History of the French New Wave Cinema) and the aforementioned short, Le Coup de berger.
Other links of interest: