‘Paris Nous Appartient’ or — Parisian Paranoia?

“In times of terror, when everyone’s something of a conspirator, everybody will be in a situation where he has to play a detective.”
Walter Benjamin.

The train smashes its way from the outskirts of Paris to the metropolis’ center: who it is carrying and for what purpose we do not know yet the discordant music that assaults us is not comforting.

A camera glides across the rooftops of the city, inheriting the now terminated locomotive’s momentum, until it comes to rest in the room of Anne, a young university student. There is a commotion from next door — Anne’s neighbour, a young Spanish girl, informs Anne that her brother has been killed by vast, dark forces and that not only are more people in danger but also the entire world.

Pierre, Anne’s brother, takes Anne to a cocktail party where the only thing being served is ennui on the rocks and everyone is paralysed by an overwhelming sense of crippling malaise following the apparent suicide of Juan, an anti-Franco Spanish musician/poet and member of their group (or is it the impending threat of nuclear annihilation? Or maybe the lack of canapés?). An American, anti-McCarthyism refugee declares it was murder. The party is hosted by Gerard, a theatre director who is now dating Juan’s ex-girlfriend, Terry. Anne finds the impending sense of dread too much to bear and leaves.

The following day, whilst visiting Gerard’s rehearsal for Shakespeare’s ‘Pericles’, Anne is invited to join the production and to play the part of Marina. Gerard informs Anne that Juan had recorded an improvised soundtrack for the play onto a tape. That tape has now gone missing. It was the element needed to tie everything together. It is titled ‘Music of The Apocalypse’.
Later Anne discovers that Gerard’s life is now also in danger and so sets out to not only find the missing music but to uncover the sinister forces at work, that laboured-breathing Minotaur at the centre of the Parisian labyrinth, and to advert Gerard’s death.

So “Paris belongs to us?” But to whom? It’s a conundrum further compounded by the statement at the end of the opening credits that “Paris belongs to no-one.” But it wouldn’t be a Jacques Rivette film without such a mysterious pronouncement, would it?
Let’s start with what is straight forward about ‘Paris Nous Appartient’ (1961). It’s a thriller, a mystery and a noir. Yet this isn’t the smart, sassy noir of Bogey and Bacall that Godard and Truffaut loved to riff on but the Apocalyptic Noir of Ray, Lang and Welles where the end of the world itself is at stake (an apocalypse that Rivette would reference again in ‘Duelle’ with the aquarium scene from ‘The Lady From Shanghai’). There are no hoodlums with guns; this is gangsterism on a cosmic scale.

So in some ways Anne is a typical Hitchcockian “hero” reluctantly thrust into a mystery but, again like the unseen forces, Rivette keeps the Hitchcock elements suitably hidden and swimming in the deep currents under the surface. Plus Anne has gone through an almost Kafkaesque transformation — waking up one morning to discover she has turned into a detective — and must now investigate Paris as “dream space”, Paris as a network of imagination.

Terrified by “reality” (the bomb, McCarthyism, Fascism) Anne’s friends have retreated into this self-made “dream city” as they are “sickened by the real world, which they can’t reform” (Rivette). Yet this dream world is even more dangerous as, after all, it is the delusions we construct for and by ourselves that are the hardest to escape from (this is the exact opposite of ‘Celine and Julie Go Boating’ which is all about the possibility of transformation).

In this way ‘Paris Nous Appartient’ shares a lot in common with the paranoid (or is it? The world is incomputable so is this paranoia we’re experiencing or simply just how humans project a sense of structure onto existence? An evolutionary mechanism? And isn’t film itself a manifestation of a conspiracy? A version of reality we watch in the dark either alone or with fellow conspirators?) excess of Thomas Pynchon with Anne almost a sort of sister to ‘The Crying of Lot 49’s Oedipa Maas and her own “rabbit-hole” tumble.

Another aspect Rivette’s film shares with Pynchon is the concern that the forces of evil were not destroyed in WW II: if Fascism was defeated then why doesn’t it feel that way? This sense of futility is the biggest difference ‘Paris Nous Appartient’ has compared to other Rivette films. What is missing here is that sense of love, that there is someone with whom you can take their hand and enter the labyrinth with together. Here everyone seems isolated. ‘Paris Nous Appartient’ is very similar to Rivette’s ‘Le Pont du Nord’, another tale of flaneurs wandering the city, except at least the Ogier’s had the luxury of an actual map, albeit an incomprehensible one, as well as each other.

This paranoia also gives the film some common ground with ‘The Invasion of The Body Snatchers’, both the 1956 and 1978 versions, as ‘Paris Nous Appartient’ deals not just with Cold War paranoia but also pre-empts the imprisoning and introspective cult of the self of the Kaufman version.

Yet for all the impenetrability and infuriating lack of resolution this is a very good looking film on a purely visual level with Rivette’s camera capturing Paris at a certain time and place and one that will never come again. It is a record of a city and highlights Rivette’s love of Balzac and how wandering can be “the gastronomy of the eye.”

Yet it is dangerous to wander the streets in the Era of High Capitalism, even across the soaring rooftops, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that is ‘flaneur’ or ‘flannel’.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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