BOOK REVIEW World Film Locations: Paris
World Film Locations: Paris is published as part of the successful World Film Locations series, which explores famous cities through the lenses of various directors. Other titles in the series discuss locations as diverse as Tokyo, New York, Istanbul and London. This volume, edited by Marcelline Block, is written by a number of contributors and contains an equally varied filmography. It sets out to examine Paris through the discussion of scenes from 46 carefully chosen films taking place in the French capital. From the oppressive atmosphere of film noir, to the bohemian youthfulness of cinema du look, this selection of films aims to show the many different faces of the city of love and its people. Longer, more in-depth essays that analyse themes, movements and specific directors’ work complement the film scenes.
The films are dealt with in chronological order, from oldest to newest. The book is organised into roughly six sections. Each one opens with a simplified map of Paris, where various locations – eight per section – are highlighted. This is followed by the bite-sized essays on scenes filmed on these sites, as well as photographs of the scene in question. There is something to cater for every taste – crime, fantasy, musicals, dramas and science fiction are just some of the types of film that are featured.
As well as discussion of the scene locations, the essays briefly touch on various themes dealt with in each of the films. The issue of class is discussed in Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) i.e. the bourgeois lifestyle versus that of a tramp. It provides a “panoramic survey of Paris … as comprehensive a picture of the French capital as the country’s cinema has ever produced.” After Boudu (Michael Simon), a tramp, loses his dog, he finds himself in the peaceful and somewhat snobbish Bois de Boulogne. He then continues his journey to the busy Quai Malaquias and the Pont des Arts, whose “intellectual, cultural and artistic life” is in contrast with the quiet, middle class neighbourhood. The essay concentrates on analysis of the locations, rather than giving away the plot of the film.
In films such as Don’t Touch The Loot (1952) and Gunman In The Streets (1950), the reader is introduced to the darker side of life in the city, where sex and money are the driving forces. More information about the storyline is given in the review of Don’t Touch The Loot than that of Gunman In The Streets, which focuses on camera angles and styles. The former talks about the individual characters and their motivations, such as Max, who “intends to retire from crime into a comfortable bourgeois existence.” The latter discusses technical details, such as a character exiting frame left, the camera tilting down and the “unchained camera of 1920s German studio-bound cinema.”
Luxury and the seemingly carefree lives of the rich are shown in lively musicals like Gigi (1958). Gaston (Louis Jourdan) gets Gigi a drink while they watch the skaters at Palais de Glace, and later takes his mistress Lian to the upmarket club Maxime’s. Gaston does not want to become like his “playboy” uncle, and ends up proposing to Gigi.
The power of the visual image is explored in The Pier (1962), which is made up almost entirely of still shots. The essay reveals the entire plot of the film, which may spoil it for those who have never seen it, but, arguably, it is necessary. The plot revolves around an image which marks and “determines destiny.” Without revealing this destiny, it is virtually impossible to discuss the power of said image.
Themes like sexuality, love, repression and issues of gender feature in the dramas Jules And Jim (1962) and Belle De Jour (1967). It is in Paris that Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) become friends, before moving to Australia. The essay discusses their friendship, which is based on their love for literature and doubts about the intelligence of women. This friendship becomes complicated when the two men fall in love with the same woman, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). The crucial location of the film is the River Seine, which looks “sombre,” and she jumps into it. Belle De Jour, by the surrealist Luis Buñuel, is darker and focuses more on sexuality. The essay focuses on the main themes of the film: repression, shame and sexual curiosity. It discusses the duality of the protagonist, Severine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve). By day, she’s the respectable wife of a doctor, and by night she works at a brothel. In this film, the address is fictional, but the filming location is the real Square Albin-Cachot.
Each of the six sections is rounded up by a longer essay, or ‘spotlight.’ These provide useful insight into a particular topic – the work of first female filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché and her quirky, working-class orientated films, with peculiar titles like The Drunken Mattress and Sausage Chase; the outsider’s take on Paris, represented by émigré directors and set designers in the 1930s; the relationship between Paris, a city, and a woman, a Parisian in Cleo de 5 à 7 by Agnès Varda, also known as the “Grandmother of the New Wave;” Paris through the eyes of Italian directors and African Francophones; and an alternate view of Paris, which does away with the old clichés and subverts the traditional image of the French capital, brought to the screen by Claire Denis.
The work of Guy-Blaché, who had an important role in early cinema, has largely been overlooked.
Perhaps the most engaging essays are ‘Paris in the Films of Alice Guy-Blaché’ and ‘City of Light, City of Darkness,’ When one thinks of the early film pioneers, the Lumière brothers spring to mind. The work of Guy-Blaché, who had an important role in early cinema, has largely been overlooked. Her films are technologically simple, yet captivating. Despite the high cost of sets, she “turned this limitation into an opportunity, making up stories to fit visually interesting locations.” In her case, the location dictates the plot, rather than the other way round. ‘City of Light, City of Darkness’ looks into the role played by Francophone directors in shaping the image of Paris. Their Paris is very different to the Paris of high-end fashion, cafes, patisseries, artistic expression and romance that exists in the popular imagination. It is a city of hostility and prejudice, where the everyday struggles are just as present as in other, less glamorised cities. Modern directors of African descent have explored the concept of biculturalism. This is highly relevant to today’s societies, not only in Paris, but across Europe, as many countries embrace multiculturalism.
World Film Locations: Paris has no narrative as such, but the maps, text and photographs complement each other and create a continuity, which helps the content flow well. The book is easy to dip in and out of. A reader may start from the middle or skip a section, and the information would still make sense. The characters and the storylines mentioned are clearly shown in the photographs, which, in turn, are labelled with a scene description and a time code. The filmography at the back also serves as an index, making it easy to find a particular film. The book is clearly intended for an educated audience. Students, professionals and those with an interest in film from an intellectual perspective are likely to make up the readership. Some familiarity with cinema, and with culture in general, is expected. There are references to film movements, such as Nouvelle Vague and Poetic Realism, and the odd French word is dropped into the text. However, the text is not inaccessible, nor is the filmography obscure. Although many older titles are mentioned, there are essays on modern, well-known films, such as Inception and The Da Vinci Code.
Many of the locations featured are easily recognisable – the Moulin Rouge, the River Seine, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre are famous examples. However, more unusual sites are mentioned as well, such as the Renault factory and a subway station. The aim is not to create something akin to a travel guide, which provides mainly factual information. Instead, the locations are connected to the stories of the characters, and almost become an additional character themselves. The imagined and the “internal” Paris is just as important as the physical, realistic Paris of cinéma verité.
It does help to have seen at least a few of the films that are discussed, or to have visited the city. However, there is more than enough information to enable the reader to follow the essays if they haven’t. In fact, a reader may be tempted to see some of the films mentioned after reading the book. Therefore, World Film Locations: Paris is not only effective in building the knowledge of bona-fide film fanatics, but also in drawing attention to films that may otherwise be neglected by mainstream audiences.
One of the main strengths of the book is its visual approach, inspired by The Big Picture magazine’s On Location feature. Some of the other literature out there neglects this very important element. Since film is a visual art, it makes sense to have striking images to complement the text. It is likely that the readers, being interested in film, would also be visually orientated. The photographs used are eye-catching, although some could be slightly bigger and of better quality.
Another positive element is the variety of contributors and their slightly different writing styles. The essays are written by PhD students, university lecturers and professors – some of whom are also writers, filmmakers and critics – from the UK, USA and continental Europe. Although nearly all the writers are from an academic background, they each bring something different to the book. The variety keeps the reader interested and prevents the essays from becoming repetitive. Although the content is written from the point of view of the contributors, it is fairly objective. There isn’t a heavy focus on opinion, but the text is not dry and impersonal.
Overall, World Film Locations: Paris is a very enjoyable volume. It is informative, without being too involved or overloading the reader. Its clear and concise style makes it easy to read at one’s leisure or to use for academic purposes. An excellently edited work.
Release date: 11th May 2012 / Author: Marcelline Block (ed) / Publisher: Intellect
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