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Six in Paris

Six in Paris(1968)

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The omnibus film – a feature made up of original short films by different directors, organized by a theme or a place – flowered in the sixties, especially in Europe, where directors of international repute were gathered to contribute short films on a variety of themes. Films from Boccaccio '70 (1962) and RoGoPaG (1963) to The Witches (1967) and Spirits of the Dead (1968) brought together the cream of European directors, and even today the omnibus film occasionally resurfaces, as with Paris Je t'Aime, comprised of 18 shorts by 18 directors shooting stories in 18 separate neighborhoods (the "Arondissements"). You can trace the inspiration for that particular cinematic love letter to the city of lights directly back to Six in Paris, a film produced by Barbet Schroeder and directed by six of the most interesting and distinctive young filmmakers working in France in the 1960s. The French New Wave had exploded in the late fifties, when Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and Claude Chabrol's Le Beau Serge brought a breath of cinematic freshness and stylistic excitement to the largely staid French film industry. Barbet Schroeder, who was born in Tehran to European parents, grew up in Central Africa and Colombia, and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, had been an integral part of the movement. His ambition was ultimately to direct, but the filmmaker found his greatest contribution to the vibrant film scene as a producer of Eric Rohmer's early films.

The inspiration for Six in Paris came from Schroeder, who hit upon the omnibus format as a way to work with most exciting young filmmakers in France and to explore the possibilities of shooting with new lightweight 16mm cameras. "It was the beginning of 16mm with direct sound," he explains in a new interview on the DVD, and he hoped that the new technology would offer the young filmmakers the freedom of shooting quickly and spontaneously, on location and in the streets. Schroeder approached six directors he wanted to work with and offered them the challenge of making a short film in this new filmmaking paradigm. They had carte blanche to develop their own stories, so long as it all took place within a single neighborhood of Paris. It was something of a revolutionary idea, as even the low-budget productions of the French New Wave had all been shot on 35mm. The idea of mixing documentary and fiction techniques was primary in his Schroeder's mind, and each director took up the challenge with essentially the tools but his own distinctive approach.

The actors were mostly non-professionals, with some notable exceptions – director Claude Chabrol, an amateur in front the camera, acted opposite his wife Stéphane Audran, most assuredly a professional, and Claude Melki had appeared in some short film by director Jean-Daniel Pollet. Schroeder himself (a veteran of both Rohmer and Godard films) appears as the blasé husband in Rouch's film. The directors, meanwhile, strove to find the character of neighborhoods beyond the landmarks and picture-postcard scenes most often seen in the movies.

Jean Douchet's opening sketch is set in the student district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where an American girl faces the morning after a one-night-stand with one seductive French guy while fending off the advances of another. "I wanted to show the district and the people who live tin it during the day, just one without their masks," wrote the director in Cahiers du Cinema at the time of the film's release. It's a witty and sexy little piece that oddly enough fulfills every America stereotype of the young French lothario always on the hustle, while dismantling the romance of the culture of sexual freedom.

Gare du Nord is from ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouche, who brings a documentarian's eye to his survey of a disillusioned young woman frustrated with her contended husband and their urban apartment. His entire 16-minute segment was shot in one unbroken take. As the sounds of construction fills their apartment, Odile (Nadine Ballot) mourns the impending loss of their view to a new high rise while navigating the tight quarters of home. The camera follows her from apartment, down the elevator as her husband yells after her (his voice recedes into the mechanical hum of the machinery as the elevator drops but her expression never changes) and into the streets, all with a nervous attention and uncomfortable intimacy until the startling finale.

Jean-Daniel Pollet's Rue Saint-Denis is a dryly understated comedy of a shy, mousy man (Claude Melki doing a sad sack deadpan) and a brassy streetwalker he's brought to his dumpy apartment. She commands the piece with her insults and digs and staccato laugh, but for all her criticisms she ends up dragging the evening out with conversation, dinner, coffee and even a newspaper break.

Eric Rohmer's gloriously slight and silly Place de l'Etoile circles around Arc de Triomphe, just like the boulevard that gives the piece its name. A travelogue gives way to the working day of Jean-Marc, a salesman who thinks he's killed a rude pedestrian after accidentally knocking him on the ground with his umbrella, followed by his race across multiple crosswalks (which are not, the narration informs us, timed well for pedestrians). Ultimately its a light social satire, not a dark murder mystery, and a sly ending returns us to the status quo of strangers on the trains and characters who briefly pass through the lives of urban Parisians. Rohmer didn't wait for the direct sound cameras and started shooting his production with a hand-wound handheld 16mm camera, shooting without sound as he observed the behavior of Parisians crossing streets, crossing against lights, riding the metro and negotiating the crowds and the pedestrian currents of the neighborhood, a comic documentary against which his fictional story is set.

Jean Luc Godard's Montparmasse-Levalois is a little three character sketch about a modern French girl who sends letters off to two lovers, then realizes that she has put the letters in the wrong envelopes and rushes off to talk her way out of the mix up with her lovers, one a metal sculptor working on cerebral art pieces, the other an auto mechanic whose specialty is auto-body repair (a metal sculptor of a different kind, in Godard's playful parallels). Godard first referenced the story, taken from an early novel by Hippolyte Jean Giraudoux, in A Woman is a Woman, where Jean-Paul Belmondo tossed it off in passing. Here is expands it into a full vignettes and it has a lightness and lolling pace that Godard rarely shows in his films. Godard embarked on the production in a rare creative partnership with his cameraman, the legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles. While Godard took charge of the script and the actors and the sets, he asked Maysles to shoot the staged scenes as if he was shooting a documentary of a live, spontaneous event. Godard shares authorial credit with Maysles in the credits.

Claude Chabrol's La Muette is a shiver-inducing slice of urban life in a splintered upper class family. Like the best of Chabrol's films of the sixties, his chilly view of dead-end relationships is perpetual motion hell; in twenty minutes he sketches an entire rhythm of life that seems to repeat endlessly, but for the boy's escape into silence with earplugs, resulting in a domestic tragedy through an ironic twist of neglect. The director ventures outside the oppressive hallways and claustrophobic warren of small rooms of the high-rent apartment only once, at the end, as if to celebrate the escape of the boy whose tiny acts of rebellion hardly make life with his bickering parents bearable. Chabrol's drama concludes the portmanteau production with its best work, a devastating dramatic sketch and a brilliant little production.

According to critic and historian Richard Brody, the French New Wave was losing momentum as both a movement and a filmmaking ideal. Six in Paris, released in France under the more evocative title Paris Vu Par... (Paris Seen By), brought a second wind to the New Wave, bringing it back to its roots and opening up the possibilities of personal expression in the cinema with this new technology. It's also a vibrant snapshot of life in Paris between 1964 and 1965 by directors who let that life flood in to their films, and is remains is one of the strongest and most entertaining anthology films to emerge from the 1960s.

The New Yorker DVD features new interviews with three of the film's collaborators. Producer Barbet Schroeder illuminates the production with an insightful interview, explaining his inspiration to undertake the project and his hope to restoke the fires of the cinematic revolution of the New Wave with a new production model. Jackie Raynal talks about becoming Eric Rohmer's editor because she was open to trying experiments in editing that more experiences editors were resistant to and Albert Maysles talks about working with Godard and using the techniques of documentary filmmaking for new avenues of creative expression in dramatic features. The longest interview belongs to critic and film historian Richard Brody, who sets the film against the history of the French New Wave and the careers of each of the six filmmakers. A fold-out booklet includes statements from each of the six directors (originally published in Cahiers du Cinema in 1965) and an archival review from critic Yvonnne Baby published in Le Monde.

For more information about Six in Paris, visit New Yorker Films.To order Six in Paris, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker