Reading Rob Tranchin’s musings on Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless — and digging up photos to post with the piece — reminded me how much the French ‘new wave’ directors (Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Rohmer) loved Paris, loved Paris street scenes. Breathless, Godard’s iconic film about a brief love affair between a young American and a small-time Parisian crook, is screening at the Angelika.
Parisian streets and illegality naturally reminded me of a different kind of “breathless”: Claude Lelouch’s C’etait un rendezvous, which has been an underground classic known primarily to gearheads, race-car buffs and fans of the Cobra-vs-Charger-chase sequence in Bullitt. Lelouch wasn’t a dues-paying member of the nouvelle vague, but he was certainly associated with it in his earliest works like Un home et une femme. This nine-minute short is a tire-squealing dash through the streets of sleepy Paris just a little after dawn in August 1976, past the Arc de Triomphe, around the Paris Opera and practically into a number of startled pedestrians and pigeons (viewers have pointed out that, for a guy in a hurry, the driver does take the long way around). The driver rips through a dozen red lights (I lost count), on occasion he drives on the sidewalk and swerves into the oncoming lane — which are, admittedly, pretty much standard survival techniques for French drivers.
Myths grew up around Rendezvous (partly because it was publicly unavailable for years): That the car was Lelouch’s own Ferrari 275 GTB (a good guess, judging from the growling sound), that Lelouch hired a professional Formula 1 driver (after all, Lelouch had filmed Le Mans), that Lelouch was arrested (he filmed it without any permits).
According to this site and others, none of this is true. Lelouch drove the car himself, using his own 6.9 liter Mercedes 450 SEL because a Ferrari, even with a gyro-stabilized camera mounted to provide a headlight-POV, proved too bouncy. Lelouch wasn’t arrested, but he was given a ticket.
And that rather un-Mercedes sound of barking gear-shifts and snarling acceleration? It was the sound of a Ferrari, Lelouch confessed, but the V12 rumble was dubbed later (the Mercedes and the live recording quality didn’t seem racy enough). Other than that, the film features no cuts and no speeded-up tricks, as it declares in French at the start.
Except, in effect, one: Putting a camera that low to the ground makes the action seem faster than it really is (the same effect can be seen when you drive and look, not at the distance ahead, but at the immediate road surface you’re passing). Hence, the long-running debate over just how fast he was going. Lelouch has said 160 kph — or about 100 mph — and Google map calculations with a stop-watch tend to confirm it.
By the way, the film is now available on DVD through Spirit Level Films. It’s even more impressive on a big home screen with the sound cranked up. The only bad thing to say about Rendezvous? It probably has encouraged way too many idiot stunt races through other city streets.