Thursday, March 10, 2016

#802: Paris Belongs to Us

(Jacques Rivette, 1961)

It's impossible for anyone my age to understand the impact of World War II, but it seems to me like people have spent far too little time putting the French New Wave in the context of postwar Paris. This might be because of the core group of filmmakers that helped define the New Wave, only Resnais directly grappled with the thing in two of his films in the collection, Night and Fog and Hiroshima Mon Amour, and even those aren't about the French experience. The surrealists who were surely the most famous Parisian artist movement until Godard and Co. were famously influenced by the horror of World War I, yet the New Wave does not have the same immediate connection to World War II despite the war's arguably more severe impact on France in general and Paris specifically. This may be because the filmmakers had other more apparent influences, most notoriously the American (though often by way of Europe) filmmakers of the 30s and 40s but also the modernist artists of the time and the political revolution of the 60s. Of course, all three of these things were also directly influenced by World War II, so even the movement's deepest origins come back to the war.

This is not to say that the shadow of World War II is never connected to the New Wave. Godard in particular is frequently linked to the political effects and philosophical ramifications of the war; the filmmaker himself has often referred to World War II (quite obviously correctly) as the key event of the 20th century. But I'm less interested in how these filmmakers handled the war in their art than I am with how it informed their desire to make art and their decisions about what kind of art they would make. Some of this was likely conscious (see Resnais again), but a lot of it was surely subconscious, an involuntary reaction to the world they had witnessed and were inheriting from the previous generation. What is it like to live in a city that for hundreds of years dominated the world's urban attention, and yet for one brief moment of history was itself nearly consumed by that same world? How does that inform your being, your worldview, your voice? The setting becomes even more complicated when you consider the post-war politics of France, where the more political faction of the New Wave was practically a declared enemy of the de Gaulle government that had been the de facto leader of the resistance.

In this context, Rivette's first film, Paris Belongs to Us, makes significantly more sense - it's no surprise that even the Criterion description of the film mentions "post-WWII disillusionment," as this seems to be the driving force. The conspiracy element of the film that springs directly from this disillusionment apparently runs throughout much of Rivette's work in the 1960s (I have yet to see any of his other films from the era) and parallels the same spontaneous generation in Thomas Pynchon's work of the era. In some ways, Pynchon's postmodern prose plays the same role in his web that Rivette's interest in the theater rehearsal process plays in his films, pulling back the curtains on the gears that make reality turn. I'm far from the first person to compare Rivette with Pynchon, but I do find it interesting that both artists are more commonly identified with the counterculture movements of the 60s and 70s when so much of what they are talking about is a direct result of the past generation's more literal battles. Like so many social and political movements, the context and groundwork is often sacrificed in order to deliver a cleaner story.

There's much to like about Paris Belongs to Us as a film. It's not as flashy as the other debut films of the New Wave, but it's packed with fully formed characters and smart dialog as much as it is open plot threads, missing pieces. Betty Schneider holds the film together as Anne - just as Rivette's style walks the line between familiar and fractured, her performance is often relatable even as I continued to feel like I didn't know her two hours into the running time. This blog is (mostly) intended to reflect my initial feelings about a movie after watching it for the first time, but films like Paris Belongs to Us are not intended to be understood on first viewing. I don't know if I'll be ready to go back into this one for some time, but I do look forward to diving into the rest of Rivette's catalog to see how his worldview evolved as the war grew more distant in both his own memory and that of the city he called home.

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