The Criterion Collection Review | Paris Belongs to Us
When most critics and film students casually refer to the French New Wave, they typically refer only to about a dozen movies; any of the features Jean-Luc Godard made in the 1960s (Breathless through Weekend), and François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, and The 400 Blows (and its follow-ups). These are all stirring, daring, and important movies, of course, and I would encourage any aspiring art snob to immerse themselves in their cinematic self-reflection immediately. Indeed, in an epoch where most of Hollywood’s major productions tend to be remakes and reflections of other movies, the French New Wave becomes all the more significant.
A tertiary voice in the French New Wave – and one that is not mentioned often enough outside of film schools – is that of Jacques Rivette, a filmmaker whose first film, Paris Belongs to Us, was just released today by the Criterion Collection in an typically exemplary Blu-ray. Rivette’s film was shot over the course of 1958, but its release was delayed, for various reasons, until 1961. Had it been released on time, it would have more or less beaten Breathless to the kickoff. Indeed, Paris Belongs to Us was directly influential to Truffaut: In The 400 Blows, Antoine goes to see it in theaters, even though it wouldn’t be released for three years. This film was sort of an in-joke among the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd.
Paris Belongs to Us is also a striking and deep-breathing achievement. He doesn’t as fervently abandon conventional narrative the same way Godard was so fond of, making for a string of New Wave-flavored thrillers that are far more casual and certainly more watchable; newcomers to the New Wave would do well to start with Rivette and lower themselves slowly into the oblique anti-stories of stuff like Band of Outsiders.
The film follows a young woman named Anne (Betty Schneider) as she casually enters into a circle of angry Parisian twentysomethings who have gathered together following the alleged suicide of a mutual friend Juan. Their conversations about their departed friend allude to his involvement with some sort of fringe political group, but the details are never made explicit. Anne, no professional actress, also begins performing for Gerard (Giani Esposito), an aspiring theater director who dreams of putting on a high-end production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Also in the circle is the mentally unbalanced American Philip (Daniel Crohem) whose dialogue sounds like the ravings of a schizophrenic. He claims that there were dark forces that killed Juan, and the same dark forces are targeting Gerard.
At a casual 142 minutes, Paris Belongs to Us strolls leisurely and exploratorive through these young people’s paranoid and art-obsessed milieu. Rivette lets the story come and go as it needs to, like an impetuous cat or unlucky ex-girlfriend. This allows for the conspiracy to slowly grow and insinuate. It becomes something psychological and abstract. The conspiracy is never named, but, by the film’s conclusion, is all too real to us.
But this is not a thriller in any conventional sense. Indeed, Paris Belongs to Us resembles L’Avventura more than any sort of actual paranoia movie. The grand conspiracy is post-war ennui itself. A joke made by history to ensure the current generation stays angry, distracted, liable to sell out, and suicidal. Rivette is exploring his theories within the neo-Bohemian let’s-just-hang-out-and-watch-an-8mm-screening-of-Metropolis world. These are young people living an exciting, art-obsessed life, but they’re too pissed off and uncertain to really recognize that.
Jacques Rivette, who died earlier this year, has never disappeared into weird anti-cinema pretension like Godard, managing to keep his themes of social ease and dark conspiracies alive in classics over the years. This critic has seen precious few of Rivette’s works, but having seen 2001’s Va Savoir, one can realize that he has been fostering and perfecting his aesthetic for decades. Rivette, in many ways, emerged fully-formed. The Criterion Collection has now granted us access to pure Rivette. We can only be grateful.
The title, by the way, refers to a quote from Charles Peguy. He said that Paris belongs to no one. The New Wave took it back.
Top Photo: Janus Films
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at@WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.