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City and Cinema: The Cinematic City of Paris

November 10, 2010 | By

Cinema is a powerful signifying system. Cinema captures the aural and the visual realities of a metropolis and becomes a metaphor for urban life.

Les Quatre Cents Coups

The city has grown to be an endless metonymy of hopes, despairs, fears and paranoia

The modern cultural space called the city has grown to be an endless metonymy of hopes, despairs, fears and paranoia. Engaging itself with the developing forms of modern life, it has come to acquire an organic life of its own, constantly negotiating questions about the urban experience and its effects on individual psyche and socio-cultural relationships. Cities exist not only in the physical realm of bricks, mortar, the concrete world of roads, buildings or the intangible networks of information and technology infinitely crisscrossing each other, but also in cultural imaginaries constructed over time through oral texts, print culture, cinema and popular music. Such imaginaries are works of collective memories of a metropolis that are recalled, retained, received and disseminated to form a kind of concept city, which co-exists along with the real city. Each city develops its own character as the continuum of memories of past events congeals to construct a unique history, and thereby unifying a social group through a shared identity. Urban spaces become the palimpsest city envisaged by Freud, where the past is imbricated within the present and how one experiences the city therefore always bears a relationship to how the metropolis has been imagined and remembered. This intertwining of the image and the real creates quintessential identity that is further circulated through modes of popular representation, of which cinema is a powerful signifying system.

Cinema captures the aural and the visual realities of a metropolis and becomes a metaphor for urban life and its varied mores. The cinematic space is reorganized through a stream of images and unique cultural references to distill real geographical sites as a fitting mise-en-scene for the unfolding narrative. In creation of the cinematic city the camera seeks and recalls specific memories attached to the place most strongly as it tracks through a bevy of signs, streets, architecture that codify an urban experience typical to that place. Pierre Nora, a French historian theorizes that certain physical spatial locations become receptacles of memory or lieux de memoir which connect the people to a time or memory now past.

Such spots have a commemorative value and semiotics of architecture and space in being a cultural signifier is a cinematic devise used in any city film to simulate the experience of actually being in that metropolis. Paris, in this context is a city that can be studied and how it is recreated and reconstructed on frame. Montages of Parisian streets and sights that add specificity recur as characters traverse the urban space. In the iconic shots used in the opening credit shots of Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) the camera tracks through Paris cityscape keeping the Eiffel Tower in view, over the rooftops, over the buildings as the camera tracks around the city, with the Tower in the skyline.

The haunting shots of Jeanne Moreau in Elevator to the Gallows (1958), lit solely by the lights of Champs- Élysées or the lyrical movement of the camera in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie (2001) as it pauses from one location to another from Cathedral Notre Dame, to the lanes of Montmartre, wandering through the beautiful Métro Lamarck-Caulaincourt to Pont des Arts, by the Louvre. Combining allure and myth of the City Of Lights, cinema functions to take the spectator around the city to read the urban text.

‘The lust to see a city’ that De Certeau talks about becomes important in the context of city films where the camera moves like a pedestrian, walking through the city, imbibing stimulations of metropolitan life and in turn formulating the city of experience. The viewer through the camera or through the gaze of the characters assumes the role of the flaneur who walks through city spaces and creates meaning, memories and myths by navigating through them. This figure of the flaneur takes on interesting connotations in an endearing Oscar winning French short film, Le Ballon Rouge (1956) by Albert Lamorisse where sentient balloons traverse both the cobblestone streets or Paris, the backyards of old Parisian houses as well as its skylines to create a moving documentation of the Belleville area of Paris which was later demolished during the late 1960’s and left in ruins for nearly the next two decades.

The film begins with a little boy rescuing a red balloon from a lamppost which then becomes his constant companion. Edmond Sechan’s brilliant cinematography and wide shots taken in full aspect ratio, capture little details of quaint city from its bakeries, its well-known Y-shaped staircase, the church of Notre-Dame de la Croix, the steps of the rue Vilin, and a brief sight of Seine sedately situated. It is sad to remember that most of these places do not have an existence anymore and the quality of nostalgia is intensified when Sechan captures everyday life in Bellville, a feel of ‘Old Paris’ through images of shopkeepers opening the window shutters, the postman delivering letters, men in berets walking past open vegetable markets, or the bluish-gray look of Belleville on a rainy day. One recalls the haunting works of the postwar French-Jewish author Georges Perec, specially his 1977 essay, “The Rue Vilin,” where he discusses the ruin in 20th arrondissement street. The documentation of a lost city in La Ballon Rouge is a powerful text in which memories of a distinct way of life is preserved. The red balloon reappears years later in a 2008 film, Flight of the Red Balloon made by Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao Hsien, and again incorporates a similar role of a lone flaneur but this time the cityscape is remarkably different. Old Paris is replaced by a new globalised, modern geography.

A tribute to Lamorisse’s classic the film begins like the ’56 film with the little boy Simon interacting with a red balloon stuck on a lamppost. Embedded within this scene are a range of historical reminders like the Metro stop at the Place de la Bastille, which had seen the uprising that catalyzed the Revolution of 1789 or the July Column and its famous Statue of the Spirit of Liberty, memorializing the Revolution of 1830. Hovering past these spatial locations of memory, the balloon floats free along with the boy but it is a different Paris from what Lamorisse had projected. In a world of play stations, video games, pin balls and technology the free flying balloon reappears, revealing contemporary Paris that at times mellows down to remember the historical city. The city unfolds on the screen as it appears through the eyes of a Chinese film student Song, as she records its ways from cafes to bars, to the sunlight parks, and the local Chinese theater. The red balloon is no longer a companion but a detached spectator who passes unnoticed along the fast paced life of Paris, peeking through windows to get a glimpse of the dysfunctional families within and soaring like a solitary figure in the skylines while presenting a panoramic view of the city.

The concept city revisits the modern template through Song, an outsider looking in who pauses to pick up traces of a past created through the cinematic text of La Ballon Rouge. Her references to the film throughout the movie and her own attempts to create footage of a free floating red balloon in contemporary Paris indicate the working of cinema in the creation of collective memory and identity that haunts the present. Song’s impression of Paris is so strongly formulated by the 1956 film that she seeks to recreate it. Nostalgia of a lost time forms a subtext throughout not only through Song but also through the wistful flashbacks of Simon who recalls the summers spent with his sister and a brilliant shot of a boat shown leaving the docks of Seine lyrically connects to the past as Simon remembers happier days with his sister.

Last Time I Saw Paris

Taylor and Van Johnson find romantic fulfillment in The Last Time I Saw Paris

Paris, has come to acquire a character, a significant aspect of which is as an enchanted city of love and glamor. The cityscape is doused with a sense of accord and set as if to accordions, a theme used in several films over the decades. Paris is the backdrop against which Elizabeth Taylor and Van Johnson find romantic fulfillment in The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), the shy waitress brings love and peace in the lives of strangers and friends and in turn finds love and happiness or the lonely letter carrier from Denver who visits Paris and finds beauty and harmony in Alexander Payne’s short film depicting the arrondissements of Paris from Paris, je t’aime (2006).

Even the invocation of its name has the rich imports of romance and who can forget the famous line from Casablanca (1942) where Rick tells Ilsa, before parting, “We will always have Paris.” This interpretation of Paris as the site of hope and wonder takes an interesting rendition in Fenetre vers Paris, a 1994 film directed by the Russian émigré film-maker Yuri Mamin. The film begins with stylized sketches of Parisian streets and poignant music which quickly turns into noisy carousal from a music band, chaos and impoverished sights of St. Peters burg as the picture comes to life. The rush for vodka, the streets of squalor, the bleak chill and disorder all signify hard times of a city verging on bankruptcy and economic disarray. Depicting the city as it struggles for stability in the post Soviet Union collapse period of recession; the film situates itself in the shift from socialism to emerging capitalism. Caught amidst this anarchy is the protagonist, Nikolai, a teacher of aesthetics who finds himself fired from his post. He moves into a new lodging where the mysterious cat of the previous occupant reappears. While trying to find out how the cat managed to get inside the apartment, Nikolai and his neighbors discover a mystifying window in the back of the closet in his apartment which magically leads to the city of Paris.

As the Russians step into foreign soil the colour and feel of the film changes as the drab ambiance and gloom is lost as a warm, bright world unfolds in front of the characters. The rich French wonderland offers a foil to the dark, dingy spaces of St. Peters burg as the cities are contrasted, compared as the fantasy theme of the film sets up a study of the cultural differences and stereotypes. While the streets of Russia smell of urine, littered by garbage, rotting fish and are made unsafe by hustlers and hooligans bent on destroying property, the ways of Paris are well lit, exuding opulence, freedom, and romantised as idyllic, a paradise filled with material prospects.

Paris glitters as the Promised Land and Nikolai’s neighbors keep returning to take back with them whatever they can lay their hands upon, honestly or otherwise. The popular notion that Paris is a place of artists is again introduced with Nikolai aspiring to play Mozart for what he thinks to be a culturally rich audience. This assumption is turned on its head as both Nikolai and the spectator discover that it is a sleazy bar where he is expected to play without trousers on. While Paris is eulogized, at the same time a constant critique from the Russian perspective reiterates into the narrative. The role of memory in forming identities works powerfully in a scene where the wonder-struck Nikolai defends the French culture when his Russian friend dismisses Paris with ‘Nobody here needs art’. As Nikolai listens in disbelief, his friend tries to break his myth about the Parisian culture by deriding them as thick as bricks. Nikolai’s impression of Paris the city is strongly informed by the concept city, the counterpart of the real metropolis which is a land of Voltaire or Bizet as he dreamily argues, a land of art and inspiration.

The sense of nostalgia and production of images through the active function of memory which we have seen in the last three films discusses takes on a poignant note in Cedric Klapisch’s Chacun Cherche Son Chat or When the Cat’s Away (1997). The story revolves around a young Parisian make-up artist Chloe whose cat goes missing while she out on a holiday. Like the cat in Window to Paris, which leads the Russians out into the magical city of Paris, in Chacun Cherche Son Chat, the lost cat leads the recluse Chloe out in the streets of Paris as she gradually discovers the varied nuances of her city and through it, herself. It is a multicultural Paris, a world caught in flux and the opening shot of the film lingers over a crane suspended over the rooftop of Paris. Old buildings are being razed down; neighborhoods are disintegrating as steady gentrification is uprooting inhabitants as change sweeps over the cityscape.

The film taps all the confusion, anger, wistfulness and melancholy of a city changing and we witness the upheaval of the Bastille area around the new Opera House. The film is preoccupied with the backstreets of Paris, not it’s glamorous, seductive sights but with the human lives and sentiments that make the city what it is. Through her journey around the 11th arrondissement she meets old Parisians, Arabs, painters, street artists, musicians and each of these interaction sutures together a feel of the city as it is stuck in the interface between urban renovation, changes it ordains and the memories and the desire for stasis that comes with it. As the physical suffers destruction, the cultural plane is undergoing changes that leave the old Parisians uneasy. In a sequence, Madam Renée sadly remarks how her favourite music store in Bastilles is now converted into a new age boutique and we can see fading away of a culture. In her dreams when Chloe cries out to her cat from the pinnacle of the monument at the Place Vendôme and one cannot help feeling that she is also trying to reach out to the old city as it is steadily getting torn apart. The rupture from a world order and the trauma that it brings about is beautifully encapsulated in this film and the film ends with Old Parisians gathering in a café to sing “ça, c’est Paris,” invoking the memories of a Paris of their dreams, their childhood as the world outside the café disintegrates into something new.

Paris emerges as a protagonist in cinema and as the characters feel the city beats it does not remain a mere backdrop but a presence, a persona that people fall in love with time and again. As Paris, the city of love, the beautiful city of light, is projected into the cinematic city, it charms through its gossamer presence and we feel the power of its beauty, its mystical romantic essence and for once hum along the old Parisians nestled inside a café, in the closing scene of Chacun Cherche Son Chat as they sing “ça, c’est Paris,” with no care in the world-

Paris is a blonde
Who pleases everyone
The snub nose of mocking
Eyes still laughing
All those who know
Intoxicated by his caresses
But it will always return
Paris in your love!
That’s Paris! That’s Paris!


[1] Nora, P. (1989), Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire, 1989

[2] De Certeau, Michel, The Practice of everyday life, University of California Press, 1988

(Pictures used in this article are taken from the Internet)

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Chandrika Acharya is a postgraduate from EFL University, Hyderabad in the Literature and Cultural Studies Department.
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