Travel (The Location Hunter): Lost in America's embrace: Paris, the setting for Jean-Luc Godard's early films, has kept its looks but not its character, says Stephen Wood
Saturday 12 March 1994
More puzzlingly, the corner was near the Place St Michel, on the Left Bank, which does not feature in the film. Apart from the opening shots, in Marseilles and on the route nationale to Paris, almost all the action takes place in easily identifiable areas of the city: the Champs-Elysees, Montparnasse and Orly airport. Geographical logic suggested that Seberg's hotel room, where a long sequence is set, was also somewhere near the Champs-Elysees.
The location for the still was not difficult to find, because the street name was clearly visible above the embracing couple: rue Xavier Privas. Finding the corner itself was more of a problem. A short, narrow street running down to the Seine, rue Xavier Privas has a T- junction at either end and a crossroads in the middle; but, although there was a Hotel de Suede on one of these corners in 1959 (again, the name was legible on the still), it is no longer there. However, there is a hotel, called Les Rives de Notre Dame, on the junction with the quai St Michel. Clutching my photocopy of the still, I went in.
At a desk in the faux-rustic interior was a receptionist in her late twenties. Had there, I asked her, been a Hotel de Suede on this same site? She was curiously noncommittal, but reached out to take the photocopy from me. 'Oh, it's old,' she said. My heart sank. 'It's from a film, called A Bout de Souffle,' I explained. 'I know,' she replied tartly.
Two years ago, the Hotel de Suede's new owners refurbished it - and changed the name. Before doing so, they telephoned the French TV channel, La Cinq, to ask if it was interested in filming at the hotel where A Bout de Souffle was made. It was, and it did, for a one-hour documentary. The receptionist knew all about Godard's film, which must have been made several years before she was born. She knew, for example, that Seberg's room was in this very hotel, and that all the interiors were shot here.
You do not need such good luck to find the exteriors of A Bout de Souffle, or of other early Godard films shot in Paris. The fabric of the centre of the city, within its medieval gates, has changed remarkably little since the early Sixties. Driving across Paris with Seberg, Belmondo complains about the new buildings which are ruining the city; but the same journey today would reveal little further depredation. The famous symbols of modern Paris, such as the Pompidou Centre and the pyramid at the Louvre, are indeed merely symbolic - and many of these grands monuments (La Defense, the Parc de la Villette) are beyond the limits of the old city.
True, the long panning shot across the place du 18 Juin that opens Godard's Montparnasse-Levallois (a 12-minute sketch in a compilation film, Paris vu Par . . ., made in 1963) would not be quite the same today: the old Gare Montparnasse has gone, replaced by the worst of a handful of gros monuments, the black, steel-and-glass Tour Montparnasse. Otherwise, Godard's Paris has largely survived, as have few other European cities. When Belmondo and Seberg pull up opposite the famous La Coupole, 200 yards along the boulevard de Montparnasse from the place du 18 Juin, they step out into a still recognisable scene. Only the name of one bar has changed: La Kosmos is now, oddly, Le Cosmos, which explained my fruitless search through the yellow pages.
This continuity is most noticeable not on the wide avenues of Haussmann's 19th-century plan for Paris but in the narrow streets of its inner-city 'villages'. Take Une Femme est une Femme, shot in 1960-61 around the market area of porte St Denis. The same bars, street furniture, shop canopies and drainpipes which you glimpse behind the three principals, Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy and Jean-Paul Belmondo, as they wander back and forth across the rue du Faubourg St Denis, are still in use; and the arch of the porte St Denis, now shrouded in scaffolding, still looms in the background.
The extras, though, are different. While the fabric of Paris may not have changed, its people have: the Parisian characters who inhabited St Denis in Une Femme est une Femme have been largely replaced by west Africans, north Africans and Turks. The Bar au Petit Pot St Denis on the corner of boulevard St Denis survives, as does the Bar Napoleon, where Anna Karina stops for a coffee; but the adjoining shops are now an oriental butcher, the Bijouterie Madani, a Turkish grocery and Pizza Lahmacun ('Specialites Turques').
Things have changed, too. In the year in which A Bout de Souffle was made, I embarrassed my family at the Gare du Nord by demanding that we wait at the head of the queue for taxis - my father offering 'our' cabs to mystified Parisians - until a Citroen DS19 rolled up. In those days, cars in Paris were excitingly French, and A Bout de Souffle's streets are full of Simcas and Panhards, as well as buses with an open platform at the back and strange, semaphore indicators. Now the Peugeots and Citroens are made in Britain and Spain and are parked bumper to bumper with Fiats, Volkswagens and Minis (and new wheelie-bins just like the ones issued by Southwark council). The buses are the same as single-deckers everywhere else.
How could it be otherwise? Everywhere is more like everywhere else. It is just so striking, after watching these 30- year-old films again, how Paris has kept its looks but lost so much of its character. It beats to an African rhythm (as the world centre for African music), it eats from a European menu (the Belgian restaurant, Leon de Bruxelles, now has seven branches in Paris). More to the point, it has lost the battle against American cultural imperialism.
The plot of A Bout de Souffle (titled Breathless for its British release in 1961) is a slender thing. Belmondo, playing a petty crook, steals a car in Marseilles, kills a policeman who tries to stop him, and spends the rest of the film's breathless 90 minutes back in Paris stealing more cars, trying to get hold of some money and Seberg, until the police finally catch up with him. As he drives, always in American cars, so he is driven - by a Yankee gangster fantasy. He imitates Humphrey Bogart, running his thumb across his lips; he is gripped by American movies; the girl he pursues is an American who sells the New York Herald Tribune on the street. In bed with her in the old Hotel de Suede, he explains that their relationship is 'a new Franco-American understanding'.
At a diplomatic level, Franco-American relationships were not then flourishing. General de Gaulle was engaged in endless squabbles with Nato, and endeavouring to protect French culture against American influence. (That endeavour, interestingly, persists at an official level: the Gatt talks almost foundered over the French desire to protect its film production, and the Ministry of Culture has recently revived its efforts to protect the French language against the incursion of English vocabulary). But the young film directors of the 'New Wave' were besotted with American cinema: most of them, including Godard (and Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, who both collaborated with him on A Bout de Souffle), had contributed to the Cahiers du Cinema, a highly influential film magazine whose enthusiasm for American cinema extended as far as an inexplicable passion for the comedies of Jerry Lewis.
As the Cahiers critics took to film- making, cherished American models were reflected in their own films, particularly Godard's. The New Wave directors turned French film-making on its head, so that instead of fantasising reality in film studios, they 'realised' fantasy with a documentary style, using hand-held cameras on location. Godard's reality was the streets of Paris; his fantasy was the genres of American movie-making. A Bout de Souffle is a gangster movie set on the Champs- Elysees and in Montparnasse. Une Femme est une Femme is a musical set in the rue du Faubourg St Denis: when Brialy asks Karina why she is unhappy, she replies that she wants 'to be in a musical, with Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly, choreographed by Bob Fosse' - and, for a few , bright, Eastman Color moments, she almost is.
Just how far life in Paris has imitated art was apparent when I went in search of the office of the New York Herald Tribune, which is heavily featured in A Bout de Souffle (in one sequence the police are tipped off about Belmondo's presence, as he waits for Seberg outside the office, by 'An Informer', played by Godard). The paper is now the International Herald Tribune, and is based in a grim office block in the suburb of Neuilly. But my informer, the commissionaire, directed me back to 21 rue de Berri, just off the Champs-Elysees, where - as a plaque on the building proudly states - the paper was 'sheltered' between 1930 and 1978.
The front of the building, now occupied by a pension fund, has been slightly remodelled. The street has undergone a dramatic cultural reorientation. In the 200-yard stretch from the Champs-Elysees, all the signs point in one direction: Chicago Pizza Pie Factory, Burger King, tax-free shopping, City Rock Cafe, Manpower, Hollywood Canteen ('The original diner's'), Berri-Washington Parking, Hotel California.
Belmondo's fantasy ends, as the gangster genre dictates, in violence. A low- life friend suggests a place where he and Seberg can spend the night. A Franco- American misunderstanding leads Seberg to shop him to the police, and he dies in a gunfight on a side road in Montparnasse.
The street is easy to find, since the address is given in the film: 11 rue Campagne-Premiere. The door from which Belmondo emerges is still there, with the old fishmonger's on one side and a children's clothes shop on the other. The street looks just the same, of course; much more than that, it is the same, still just a side road off the boulevard du Montparnasse. Here, Belmondo staggered down the middle of the road - a real Parisian road, just like in the movies. And there, at the junction with boulevard Raspail, he collapsed and died, a bout de souffle.
The Yankee fantasy died, too. But this was only a film, not real life.
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