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The best thing about New Yorker's new DVD of producer Barbet Schroeder's Six in Paris (Paris du par ...) is an extra, an interview and opinion piece featuring critic Richard Brody. In twenty minutes the bearded Brody communicates a great deal about the French New Wave that doesn't come out in laudatory critical writings. After spending much of the 1950s tearing down French film in print, the New Wave's critics-turned-directors succeeded in breaking into the filmmaking game. Just a couple of years later, films by most of them were doing poorly at the French box office, and by 1962 the movement was in danger of dying out.
Young Barbet Schroeder was intent on succeeding as a producer, and concocted a plan to produce a film with new technology that would free directors from the daunting economics of 35mm. Lightweight 16mm sync-sound equipment originally developed for newsreel work now made it possible to record both picture and audio with un-blimped hand-held cameras. In many previous 35mm New Wave films all audio including dialogue had to be post-dubbed. Schroeder commissioned six directors to film one episode apiece for his movie. The only unifying theme was that each would be set in a different Parisian neighborhood-locale. Paris du par ... would be a portrait of Paris seen at street level.
At first glance most of the segments seem so simple as to be filmed in only a day or two. Jean-Luc Godard planned his picture out, rehearsed his actors and then stood by while American cameraman Albert Maysles covered the action free-style, without fully knowing what the actors would do. Godard gave Maysles a sort of subordinate co-directing credit. Three of the other filmmakers also keep the level of directorial control at a minimal level. Casual viewers might conclude that the directors are using a minimum of craft and simply playing with the camera. Six in Paris's aim seems to be to find a new direction for the New Wave. In reality, the movement was not so uniform in its goals. Its most talented filmmakers evolved distinct personal styles.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés: Jean Douchet. A young American girl (Barbara Wilkin) speaks of romantic dreams when she's picked up and bedded by a handsome art student. But the morning brings a number of rude surprises.
Gare du Nord: Jean Rouch. This deceptive long-take piece begins in a crowded apartment with a disenchanted young wife (Nadine Ballot) giving her husband (Barbet Schroeder) grief for his lack of ambition. In the street she meets a charming, persistent stranger (Gilles Quéant) who won't take No for an answer.
Rue Saint-Denis: Jean-Daniel Pollet. A woefully anonymous young bachelor (Claude Melke) takes a sarcastic prostitute (Michelline Dax) back to his apartment, and listens patiently while she goads and belittles him.
Place de l'Étoile: Eric Rohmer. A fastidious clerk in a men's store (Jean-Michel Rouzière) must each day cross a busy traffic hub around the Arch of Triumph. One day he has an altercation with another pedestrian, and knocks him to the ground. The clerk walks away, but is soon convinced he'll be arrested for murder.
Montparnasse & Levallois: Jean-Luc Godard. A neurotic girl (Joanna Shimkus) accidentally mixes up the notes she sends to her fiancé and her lover, and then visits each of them to explain before the letters arrive.
La Muette: Claude Chabrol. Disgusted by the rancor between his mother (Stéphane Audran) and father (Claude Chabrol), a young boy (Gilles Chusseau) plugs up his ears to shut out the noise. Neither parent notices.
All of the six films represent personal statements even though a couple of them seem rather insubstantial. Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer fashion complex situations in miniature, using neighborhood-related gimmicks like treacherous pedestrian walkways or the fact that the name of one section of the city literally means "The Mute."
Jean-Luc Godard's short piece may be filmed well, but it comes off as a thoughtless quickie, a minimal effort. Joanna Shimkus delivers most of her dialogue to the floor of her boyfriend's art studio; the entire piece is a literal adaptation of a story told in a conversation in Godard's A Woman Is a Woman. Jean-Daniel Pollet's little one-act play is a droll comedy about a seasoned hooker toying with a client who seems to demand nothing of her. We think they might consider marriage, as her contempt and his insecurity seem such a good fit.
Jean Rouch's film has a nice balance of form and content, being front-loaded as a setup for a trick ending, yet lingering in the memory as an honest snapshot of very real attitudes. The desperation of the Nadine Ballot character must be universal, as it seems entirely in keeping with 2008. Jean Douchet's breezy tale of a pickup picked up and quickly dispensed with seems rather rushed, but has its merits as well. The dreamy romance of the night turns into something far less attractive in the hard light of day.
Producer Schroeder's film didn't work out as he had hoped; it led to no birth of a "new cinema" to accompany the New Wave. He wanted to both film and exhibit in 16mm but found few theaters capable of quality 16mm projection. He was forced to blow the film up to 35mm, an unplanned expense. By the time Six in Paris reached theaters, the New Wave and its auteurs had already evolved in new directions.
New Yorker's DVD of Six in Paris presents the 16mm-originated movie in a good but not exceptional transfer. Probably owing to using an old blow-up element, colors are subdued and the image is a bit soft, which is probably exactly how the film has always looked. The flat aspect ratio reflects the original 16mm format as well.
Besides the illuminating Richard Brody video essay, New Yorker includes interviews with Barbet Schroeder, cameraman Albert Maysles and editor Jackie Raynal. A welcome color insert has brief bios of the six directors, with statements from each of them when the film was new. A 1965 Parisian review of the movie is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Six in Paris rates:
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