Giani Esposito as Gerard Lenz in Paris nous appartient (1961)

Rivette’s ‘Paris nous appartient’ Nods to McCarthyism, Communist Witch Hunts, and Cold War Paranoia in the USA

Jacques Rivette's first French New Wave film, Paris nous appartient, is infused with the look and feel of Hollywood's more paranoid, conspiratorial and apocalyptic films noir.

Paris nous appartient
Jacques Rivette
24 Sep 2018

Godard in Paris nous appartient

When shooting commenced in 1957, Jacques Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us) was the first French New Wave film to go into production. However, Rivette chose to shoot the film in something of a piecemeal manner over the next two years, and when Paris nous appartient was finally released in 1961, the phenomenon of the French New Wave was already in full swing. Indeed, Rivette’s fellow Cahiers du cinema critics-turned-film directors, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, had already made a huge impression with Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) and A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) respectively.

But while Truffaut and Godard’s films represented fresh and radical takes on Hollywood’s crime drama-cum-gangster film genres, Rivette had looked towards a different Hollywood genre for inspiration when putting Paris nous appartient together. Rather than being crime orientated, Rivette’s film is infused with the look and feel of the more paranoid, conspiratorial and apocalyptic films noir that Hollywood produced, such as Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Formally, Rivette’s film looks like a classical Hollywood movie for the most part – albeit a fairly stylish one – and the director tends to eschew the looser and more formally disruptive approaches employed by Truffaut and Godard in their breakthrough films. That said, Paris nous appartient does feature one or two formally striking moments and the nascent French New Wave vibe is readily detected in the film’s more incidental and intimate scenes.

Set in Paris in 1957, the film’s credits play over point of view shots filmed from the inside of a moving train carriage as it makes its way to a Parisian station. These point of view shots belong to an unseen person whose identity is never revealed. Thus, these opening shots work to telegraph the anonymous, transnational and transient nature of many of the characters that we will soon meet. In turn, the transient locations that many of these characters are duly seen to occupy (moodily lit and impersonal hotel rooms, small and sparsely decorated rented apartments, anonymous cafes and shadowy city streets after dark) serve to amplify Paris nous appartient‘s film noir leanings.

The film proper gets underway in a rented apartment block when a young student, Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider), encounters a female neighbour in a state of extreme distress. The woman indicates that she knows Anne’s brother, Pierre (Francois Maistre), before deliriously rambling about the murders of Assunta and Juan and warning, “It’s the beginning. All his friends will be killed. No one will escape. The whole world is threatened and nothing can be done.” When Anne accompanies Pierre to a party that’s attended by his bohemian and politically radical associates she’s alarmed to hear them speak of a friend called Juan, who recently took his own life.

A celebrated but nervous American communist, Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), is a special guest at the party and he declares that Juan was in fact killed by his ex-girlfriend, Terry (Francoise Prevost). The next day, Anne visits the rehearsals for a fringe theatre production of Shakespeare’s Pericles with her boyfriend Jean-Marc (Jean-Claude Brialy) and winds up getting a role. But she soon discovers that the play’s director, Gerard (Giani Esposito), is now going out with the mysterious Terry. When Gerard remarks that a lost piece of music that Juan had recorded would have suited the play perfectly, Anne takes it upon herself to track down the master tape, but it seems that somebody doesn’t want her to find it. In the course of doing so, she undertakes the dangerous enterprise of using her meetings with people who were part of Juan’s life to simultaneously investigate the musician’s death. Her actions prompt a wave of paranoia amongst Juan’s associates that proves to have deadly consequences.

Paris nous appartient features plenty of well-drawn noir-ish characters whose motivations keep us guessing as to whether they might really be the targets of an unspecified global conspiracy or, worse still, be working for the conspirators. Clearly representing a nod in the direction of McCarthyism, communist witch hunts and cold war paranoia in the USA, the American Kaufman isn’t welcome at home anymore but he’s struggling to put down firm roots in Paris too. Paranoid and unstable, it’s hard to believe that anybody would perceive him to be a threat. The mysterious Terry seems to be a more dangerous type – she comes on like a femme fatale and Gerard even observes that it is her femme fatale-like qualities that he finds attractive.

A secret that Kaufman and Terry share – the pair are seemingly former lovers who keep in touch – but dare not reveal to others for fear of deadly consequences, seems to be the key to everything but, then again, the secret might just be a Hitchcock-esque “MacGuffin”. The same could be said for Juan’s mysterious missing music tape. An aloof industrialist, De Georges (Jean-Marie Robain), is an unlikely interloper who proves to be a highly suspicious character and suspicion also eventually falls on Pierre when Anne finds out that he has been working for De Georges. We also discover that Juan’s sister was a political activist who disappeared after being sent to Spain to start a strike. Young and innocent, Anne’s enquiring mind and naïve nature ultimately leads her into danger but she remains an unusual and resourceful investigative heroine.

Running parallel to Paris nous appartient‘s complex noir mystery narrative is the story of Anne’s involvement in Gerard’s play. Making films that involved some kind of focus on the theatre and performance as part of their narratives was one of Jacques Rivette’s auteurist ticks (see Celine and Julie Go Boating [1974] for a further example of this) and here he provides the complete gestation period of Gerard’s production, starting with its humble and precarious beginnings and ending with it being staged in a premier Parisian theatre. But while this sub-narrative allows Rivette to place his passion for the mechanics of the theatre onscreen it does also dovetail nicely with the film’s main noir mystery narrative: somebody in a position of power begins pulling strings that have a major effect on the production while also adding impetus to Anne’s investigations.

Rivette captures some great location footage on the streets of Paris by day while moody lighting transforms the city into a foreboding and potentially dangerous labyrinth at night. As previously noted, the film is quite conventional looking at a formal level for the most part, but there’s one striking sequence that reminds us of the formal innovation that’s associated with the French New Wave: when Anne visits Kaufman and finds him entertaining a female model friend, Rivette presents an unannounced “flash through” collage of still images that show the model’s past photographic assignments. The quality of the film’s acting rates very highly across the board and French New Wave scholars will be interested to spot cameos by Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy and Jean-Luc Godard. As such, Paris nous appartient remains a compelling film that will appeal to fans of the French New Wave, Jacques Rivette and mysterious films noir alike.

The picture and sound quality of the BFI’s recent Blu-ray of Paris nous appartient are of high quality. Charles L. Bitsch’s crisp black and white cinematography is rendered very well. Philippe Arthuys’ interesting and expressive soundtrack music comes through clearly too. The dramatic and discordant music cue that plays over the film’s front titles serves to put the viewer on edge from the outset while a number of sitar-based pieces telegraph the outsider-bohemian nature of Pierre and his associates. Extra features include an audio commentary by Adrian Martin, an informative introduction by Jonathan Romney, Rivette’s short film Le Coup du Berger (1957) and an illustrated booklet (that was not sent for review).

RATING 7 / 10