Cinéma vérité

I have sometimes asked myself what use it was to have lived all those years in Paris, but now I know: it was to have sat in my – isolated – seat at the cinema, unable to move or breathe, while Jean-Louis Trintignant drove through the city at 200 km per hour, ‘grillant tous les feux rouges’, early one morning, fifty years ago.

            It is still quite dark and the camera is almost at ground level so the trees on the avenue Foch look like dark blurs, slightly menacing until I see myself walking along there after classes at Porte Dauphine. Seconds later we are at place de l’Etoile, shooting onto it as drivers always did, as if released from a catapult. I never drove in Paris but if I had done I would have taken the little road that runs round outside l’Etoile, with traffic lights at every intersection. The Champs-Elysées slope downwards, you realise, as the car launches itself onto them. Les Champs, as friends who lived on the rue la Boétie would refer to it, just a street in the neighbourhood. Faster and faster, only the occasional other car, red lights glowing uselessly at the crossroads, breath firmly held. It isn’t bumpy, which adds to the dreamlike quality.

            At Concorde, after a fine view of the Assemblée Nationale, the car veers to the left, past the Louvre, then left again, just time to think there was no pyramid yet, through the guichets, really much too fast. And then even more exciting: he was going to our house! Up the avenue de l’Opéra, round the Palais Garnier, into the rue de la Chaussée d’Antin, never seen it so empty, up round the church of la Trinité, yes, he’s on the rue Blanche – no, he’s turned off into rue Pigalle. Still, I recognise the streets, tremble when he almost turns right into the rue Lepic, then start breathing again once he is past the huge Castorama, which does not exist yet, on the right before place de Clichy.

            The next part, Montmartre, ending at the Sacré Coeur, is less exciting, but a Montmartre telephone number – Montmartre 1540 – is repeated twice in the film, so it does make sense. On closer examination, however, none of it makes sense.

            This sequence is in Claude Lelouch’s film Les plus belles années d’une vie, the follow-up, fifty years later, to Un homme et une femme, with the same actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée. Trintignant’s son, Antoine, is played by the man who played him as a little boy in 1966. The new film has many scenes from the original, but I had no recollection at all of that dash through Paris. In 1966 I was at school, in love with France, and went to see Un homme et une femme with my mother. We drove home through darkened country roads, with the music still in our heads.

            That drive through Paris, it turns out, is actually a short film by Lelouch called C’était un rendezvous (1976), inserted into the new film with a voiceover by Trintignant. Lelouch did the driving himself, racing through Paris at the crack of dawn, jumping all the red lights, without official permission or having the streets cleared: it really happened. It looks like a dream but it is real, it is in a film in which it does not really belong: it is time refound and history rewritten, several times over. Best of all, it is not a chase: the driver is not being chased by anyone, or only by me.

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