Paris nous appartient (1961)

PARIS BELONGS TO US (Paris nous appartient)

(director/writer: Jacques Rivette; screenwriter: Jean Gruault; cinematographer: Charles L. Bitsch; editor: Denise de Casabianca; music: Philippe Arthuys; cast: Betty Schneider (Anne Goupil), Gianni Esposito (Gerard Lenz), Françoise Prévost (Terry Yordan), Daniel Crohem (Philip Kaufman), François Maistre (Philip Kaufman), Jean-Claude Brialy (Jean-Marc), Paul Bisciglia (Paul); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Roland Nonia; Merlyn Films; 1960-France/UK-in French with English subtitles)
“Despite its frustrating use of vague suspense and being overblown, Rivette’s debut is sound both intellectually and philosophically.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s the overlong and auspicious first feature by Jacques Rivette (“Celine and Julie Go Boating”/”La Belle Noiseuse”/”The Gang of Four”), the former critic for Cahiers du Cinema. The amateurish production was made on a shoestring budget and was delayed in filming for two years because of money problems. It still beat other French New Wave directors out to a theater release and thereby was the first of such films from like-minded filmmakers Chabrol, Truffaut, Demy and Godard, though it never was as popular as those other director’s debuts. It’s a fascinating but flawed psychological thriller that accurately captures the tense times among the youthful idealists in the Paris of 1957 and today can be best viewed as a time-capsule of a Left Bank Paris that has changed much over the ensuing years.

It’s an enigmatic detective story built on a labyrinthine tale of conspiracy, people vanishing and suspicious suicides that reflect a world-wide totalitarian conspiracy and a Cold War paranoia that was prevalent during the 1950s. The film is set in Paris among the intellectual theater and university crowd, and American political exiles escaping the red baiting McCarthy witch hunt in America.

The title is a rebuttal of the opening epigraph from Charles Peguy: “Paris belongs to no one.”

An offbeat theater group comes together in Paris in the summer to stage a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles. The tense director is Gerard (Gianni Esposito), who recruits college literature student Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) to be in the play. Anne becomes curious over the suicide of a Spanish avant-garde guitarist named Juan, who was seeing the attractive American political exile Terry Yordan (Françoise Prévost) and begins an amateur detective investigation as to why the political activist would take his life and her neighbor in the hostel disappeared–wondering if both incidents are related. Also hanging around with the theater crowd is American exile Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), a writer who is a victim of McCarthyism and an hysterical neurotic figure given to fainting spells. He is responsible for informing Juan and Gerard of a mysterious worldwide organization that is watching them and making sure they keep the cabal secret or else.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

After Anne has a run in with all the main characters associated with the left-wing theater group, she wonders “Am I going crazy, or is it the whole world?” Her older brother Pierre (François Maistre) tells her: “Both, kid.” Eventually it is revealed to Anne that Philip made the whole thing up, but not before the damage done includes Juan’s death, the paranoid Gerard committing suicide and Terry killing Anne’s brother because he was getting too paranoid.

Despite its frustrating use of vague suspense and being overblown, Rivette’s debut is sound both intellectually and philosophically.