Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Schroeder at BAM: Six in Paris

Part of New York’s charm (on a good day) is its distinct neighborhoods. Go a few blocks and the look and feel can change dramatically, but at its core, it is still the same City. That is sort of the idea underlying Six in Paris, a French New Wave anthology film produced by Barbet Schroeder, screening at BAM this Friday, as part of their Mad Obsessions Schroeder retrospective.

The six stories of Paris are each associated with a particular Parisian neighborhood and were helmed by different directors. Schroeder is actually not one of the six. He served as producer and appears in a supporting role in the second installment. However, Paris does boast three of France’s most renowned directors in Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol.

It begins in Jean Douchet’s “Saint-Germain-des-Prés,” the city’s cultural district. While the story of an American art student seduced by a French player is a bit slight, its opening narration, accompanied by the sound of jazz and brief guided tour of the neighborhood, effectively sets the film’s people-watching ambiance.

Jean Rouch, whose anthropological documentaries influenced the Nouvelle Vague movement, directed the “Gare du Nord” story. Odille (Nadine Ballot) is unhappily married to the all too content Jean-Pierre, played by Schroeder. After an argument over real estate and their less than prestigious neighborhood (which New York audiences will relate to), she meets a wealthy stranger in the street, who appears to be her ideal man come to tempt her away from married drudgery. However, what starts as a claustrophobic domestic drama becomes a meditation on chance meeting and random tragedy.

Jean-Daniel Pollet’s “Rue Saint-Denis” vignette is more in the people-watching vein again, showing the chaste foreplay between a shy dishwasher and the prostitute he hired for the evening. However, Rohmer’s “Place de L’Etoile,” is the most successful segment of the film, telling the tale of a mild-mannered shop clerk’s fear and paranoia following a fateful metro commute, with the style and economy of a great French short story. Jean-Michel Rouzière is straight-laced perfection as the nervous Jean-Marc, and Rohmer’s witty narration on the nearby Arc de Triomphe as place only tourists visit will again ring true for New Yorkers.

Godard’s "Montparnasse-Levallois" also relies on the ironic twist for dramatic effect, but details like characterization do not bear close scrutiny. It is still an interesting example of early pre-Maoist Godard, with cinematography by the celebrated documentarian Albert Maysles. Claude Chabrol’s concluding “La Muette” is possibly the darkest story and the strongest entry following Rohmer’s contribution. As an unsettling tale of family dysfunction, it is the kind of disturbing subject matter Chabrol continues to mine in his recent films with rich results.

While Paris has a deceptively light tone, the events it depicts are in fact quite heavy for its characters. Like all anthology films, Paris is a tad uneven, but overall its strengths (particularly in Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rouch) predominate. Starting Friday, it plays for a week at BAM along with a program of vastly different Schroeder films, like the recent Devil’s Advocate, a fascinating documentary on French attorney Jacques Vergès, the Zelig of international terrorism, and La Vallee and More, which became his stoner movies thanks to their Pink Floyd soundtracks.