Note: The film starts around the 30 second mark.
Site of so many historic screenings, cradle of so many innovative auteurs, setting of so many memorable scenes: does any city have a more central place in the cinephile’s consciousness than Paris? Filmmaker-professor Richard Misek calls it “the city where cinephilia itself began.” It certainly has a place in his own cinephilic journey, beginning with a chance encounter, 24 years ago in the district of Montmartre, with one of the luminaries of French New Wave film: Éric Rohmer, who was then in the middle of shooting his picture Rendezvous in Paris. “I only realized this fourteen years later, when I saw the film late one night on television,” Misek says. “It was the first Rohmer film I’d ever seen — and I was in it.”
He tells this story early in Rohmer in Paris, his hour-long video essay on all the ways the auteur used the city in the course of his prolific, more than fifty-year-long filmmaking career. Misek describes Rohmer’s characters, “always glancing at each other: on trains, on streets, in parks, in the two-way shop windows of cafes where they can see and be seen,” as flâneurs, those observant strollers through the city whose type has its origins in the Paris of the 19th century. “But their walks are restricted to lunch hours and evenings out. They form detours from less leisurely trajectories: the lines of a daily commute.” With ever-increasing rigor, the director “traces every step of his characters’ journeys through the city with topographic precision. His characters follow actual paths through Paris, paths that can be drawn as lines on the city’s map.”
Though Rohmer did have his differences, aesthetically as well as politically, with his colleagues in the French New Wave, “in one way, at least, he always stayed faithful to the spirit of the nouvelle vague: throughout his life, Rohmer didn’t just film Paris, he documented it.” Cutting up and deliberately re-arranging thousands of pieces of image and sound in Rohmer’s dozens of shorts and features, placing side-by-side shots of the same Parisian spaces years and even decades apart, Misek shows us how Rohmer cinematically illustrates “one of the basic truths about urban existence: in cities, humans’ lives intersect every day. But most of these intersections are transitory, crossed paths between two people following different trajectories.”
Rohmer didn’t always film in Paris. As his career went on, he told more stories that depart from the city, but then, those stories also usually return to it: ultimately, almost all of his characters find that “Paris cannot be transcended.” Watch just one of Rohmer’s films, and you’ll see how little interest he has in romanticizing the City of Light, yet the words of one character in Full Moon in Paris might also be his own: “The air is foul, but I can breathe,” he declares. “I need to be at the center, in the center of a country, in a city center that’s almost the center of the world.”
Just as Rohmer demonstrates the inexhaustibility of Paris with his filmography, Misek demonstrates the inexhaustibility of that filmography with Rohmer in Paris, which he has recently released into the public domain and made free to watch online. It provides real insight into the work of Éric Rohmer, the city in which he became a cinephile and then a filmmaker, and how the two repeatedly intersect with one another over the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. But it also implies an answer, in the affirmative, to another, more general proposition that Misek raises early in the essay: “I can’t help but wonder if cinephilia is a journey without end.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.