Production having begun in 1957, Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us (Paris Nous Appartient) was on track to be the first film of the French New Wave to screen in theatres. But problems with finance and distribution delayed its release until 1961, after Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960).
When Paris Belongs to Us finally appeared, the genre had been radically altered by those groundbreaking releases, and the film looked a little staid by comparison. The movie met with mixed reviews in France, although Rivette’s New Wave compatriots gave it their wholehearted support.
The film fares better a half-century later. It unspools as a provocative, precisely photographed and carefully edited movie that succeeds in expressing the political and personal paranoia of its opinionated cast. Most interesting is the way the movie denotes the transition between earlier films and those of the New Wave, standing at a crossroads between the two.
Rivette wrote the script, with Jean Gruault, after a discussion with Italian neo-realist master Roberto Rossellini, who wanted to produce films about French life (Rossellini abandoned the project early on). The story focuses on a group of left-wing characters connected by a staging of Shakespeare’s Pericles.
The movie opens just after Juan, a Spanish musician, has committed suicide. The group of friends, which includes theatre director Gerard (Giani Esposito), ice-cool beauty Terry (Françoise Prévost) and expatriate American Phillip (Daniel Crohem), debate the reasons for Juan’s suicide, and become obsessed by the notion of a political plot to kill them all.
The film then follows Ann (Betty Schneider), a naive newcomer, and her search for a missing tape of Juan’s guitar music. There are ruminations about a Spanish fascist group, but Rivette, a Marxist, is ambivalent about whether this unseen enemy actually exists. The fear could be an example of mass paranoia or a metaphor for the mood of the times.
As an influential writer for French film journal Cahiers du Cinema – the home-base of Godard, Truffaut, et al, who began their careers as critics – Rivette had been an agitator for a new style of filmmaking. The fact that Paris Belongs to Us was not as forward looking as the works of his friends is partially down to the technological advances that occurred shortly after 1957.
Rivette’s film was, for instance, shot silently and had to be dubbed later, while the others used the Naga sound recorder, which allowed directors to shoot sound and image simultaneously. It wasn’t until 1969’s L’amour fou that Rivette would hit his stride.
Paris Belongs to Us will be screened on July 31 at Festival Grand Cinema, Kowloon Tong, as part of the Cine Fan programme.