Paris Belongs to Us
d. Jacques Rivette (1961)
The Criterion Collection Spine: #802
Blu-ray Release Date: March 8, 2016

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.

Jacques Rivette’s debut feature, which today, thanks to The Criterion Collection, comes to home video in the United States for the first time, has what appears to be a hopeful title: Paris Belongs to Us. Its proprietary nature smacks of getting the most out of life, a kind of YOLO yawped by its bohemian crowd of Parisian twentysomethings in the late 1950s. Rivette quickly subverts this notion, though, even before we even meet one of the characters. The film opens with a camera shot out a train window, the open streets and train platforms zoom by while the cast and crew names listed. But the screen darkens as the train approaches a covered platform, and the images go a bit crazy as another dark train rushes the other way, windows blurring, light flickering, in some beautiful black and white cinema. It’s here that a line from a poem by Charles Péguy pops up: “Paris belongs to nobody.” Thus begins a mysterious, ultimately elusive, film where the narrative takes an about-face multiple times, where hope is nipped before it even has a chance to flower, and all of this so playfully rendered.

Paris Belongs to Us Cover

The first character we meet after Paris Belongs to Us turns to “Paris belongs to nobody” is a young student named Anne (Betty Schneider). Anne, who will turn out to be the character we follow most, is rather innocent when the film begins, and she soon finds herself amidst a crowd of intriguing artists.

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Though there’s supposed to be a free spirit amongst such a group, Anne and we viewers soon find that this one is stifled to one extent or another. One of the group’s friends (or, at least, an acquaintance; it’s hard to call these people “friends”), a guitarist named Juan, has committed suicide. Before Anne can decide if she wants to find out why Juan is dead, she starts to hear muffled or convoluted reports of a conspiracy, the size of which continues to grow. Juan was just the first (and we begin to wonder if his suicide was actually a murder). The reports say others, others Anne is getting close to, will be next. Anne decides, though she’s hopelessly naïve, to get to the bottom of this impossible plot.

If we’re going by the surface, the film should play out slowly and perhaps inspire boredom because Anne is a terrible detective. If she asks direct questions, she is laughed at. If she doesn’t, she gets lost in a conversation she barely understands. There’s no question — she is not sharp enough to get to the bottom of any potential conspiracy, let alone to the bottom of the characters who are instigating these reports. But Rivette’s film is remarkably atmospheric. The point of the narrative isn’t to uncover any particular conspiracy or mystery, but rather to watch what such thoughts can do to the psyche. For example, he often puts his characters in stark shadow, contrary to conventional film technique:

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Rivette hones in on the isolation one can feel, even among friends, even in a big city, by making the characters stand apart, by making the streets next to empty:

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Paris Belongs to Us is the first film I’ve ever seen that feels like a Roberto Bolaco novel (I’m thinking particularly of A Little Lumpen Novelita (my review here)) or story (I’m thinking of “William Burns” (my thoughts here)). I’m not suggesting any direct link — Bolaño was working a generation later in another part of the world — but the connection is fruitful. Bolaño and Rivette both understand that a good detective story, particularly a failed detective story, can be a great way to look at the darker forces at work in culture and politics.

With this film and many of Bolaño’s works we get tales of young idealistic artists navigating the labyrinthine streets of a big city, the threat of conspiracy, murder, politics weighing heavier and heavier, though they cannot articulate any concrete basis for their fears. They seem to be mad. We come to suspect their fear is simply a paranoia with no conventional, narrative cause. They can latch onto an intimation of danger — perhaps they overhear a stray comment or see someone who looks their way — and that dread remains even if whatever caused it is proven to be nothing of consequence. On the other hand, the import of seemingly significant bits of information is almost casually batted away. For example, at the beginning of Paris Belongs to Us, Anne hears a woman crying in a neighboring apartment. When she goes to see if she can help, the woman asks if Anne is Pierre’s sister. Yes, she is. He’s dead! the woman yells and cries. In the next scene, there Anne sits with Pierre, obviously not dead, as if nothing particularly strange happened. She asks Pierre if he knows the neighbor, but she doesn’t really get into how strange her neighbor was acting.

It can be frustrating when the narrative breaks off or  bends around; it is certainly confusing. We may feel, with some reason, that Rivette is just toying with us because he is unable to make any connection between A and B. But as I’ve often said when defending the work of Bolaño, while there are many loose ends that beg the question “what is the point,” the point, of course, is that there are many loose ends, and the mind will do with them what it will. There are threats out there that can be felt but never explained. Just because something cannot be explained or is explained away does not mean that we are not genuinely and forever affected on a personal. And even if we cannot explain the intimations of danger, even if there is no logical way to unravel the mystery, it doesn’t mean the threat to our body and/or mind is not real.

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And the film is so playful. Jokes (or violence) come with a slick edit, before we’ve had a chance to made any narrative connection. One of the artists is a stage director, attempting to put on Shakespeare’s Pericles, but they are so poor not only can they not pay the actors but they must find a different corner of Paris in which to practice every day, with different spatial surroundings and different props. It’s obviously not going to work.

The Paris Rivette playfully presents to us is not a stage on which these characters can control one another, let alone themselves. It’s frustrating and entertaining and profound. After all, learning that Paris does not belong to you can be just as existentially devastating as any actual physical threat.

The Criterion Edition: For the first Criterion film by this major director, there is a notable lack of supplements, though what we get are strong.

  • First, we get a 24:48-minute interview with Richard Neupert, author of A History of the French New Wave Cinema. Neupert’s supplement is invaluable as it situates Rivette in his unique position amongst the filmmakers of the French New Wave. Neupert talks about Rivette’s career before this debut, and then he goes into a lot of detail about this film itself (referencing, but not really going into, Rivette’s later work). Paris Belongs to Us both fits and doesn’t fit in the mold of the French New Wave, and Neupert does a good job explaining that strange situation.
  • Second, and last, we get Rivette’s 1956 short (29:02 minutes) film “Le coup du berger,” where many of the famous directors of the French New Wave — Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol — came together before each going on to start his own career.
  • The minimalist packaging comes with a fold-out insert featuring an essay by critic Luc Sante.
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