Friday, September 25, 2015

The Favorites - Place de la Republique (#88)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Place de la Republique (1974/France/dir. Louis Malle) appeared at #88 on my original list.

What it is • We open with an old man wandering slowly through a public area in Paris, the Place de la Republique where all the "action" of the film will take place. As the camera and microphone follow closely behind, his expression registers no recognition - finally, director Louis Malle asks if he knew they were filming him. Nonchalantly, only vaguely bemused, he shrugs and shakes his head...then goes on about his business. It's a perfect little opening for two reasons: because the rest of the documentary will continue this easygoing, playful sense of engagement with it subjects, but also because this sets up an ironic counterpoint to the rest of Republique. For the next ninety minutes, all of the everday, real-life passerbys Louis Malle follows or chats up will be hyper-aware of the camera and microphone, often becoming quite conscious performers. We meet old pensioners, young shopgirls, worn-out immigrants, middle-aged philanderers, and a chic wig saleswoman who defly turns the tables on director Malle. "I know who you are," she slyly remarks, before wishing him a happy 40th birthday.

Why I like it
I just love sinking into this world, people-watching with most of the boring bits cut out, while other boring bits are lingered over until they too become mesmerizing. One pedestrian asks Malle if the film will be a documentary, and he seems uncertain how to define it. The most analogous form may be home movies. We have the same sense of subjects engaging with the camera in a real-life context, not telling any pre-planned story but not exactly going about their daily routine either. The DVD case notes that Malle chose a working-class area of town and that the converstions and editing emphasize the romantic, social, and above all economic struggles of the participants. World War II is also a constant theme, only thirty years in the past so that many of these ordinary people experienced extreme situations in their youth - one mild-mannered old gent casually recalls the Jewish yellow star he had to wear outdoors. Nonetheless, the film does not use this context to box everyone into strict categories. Instead the people seem both universal and unique. Despite my generalized descriptions above these are individuals rather than types; some even join in with the filmmaking themselves. Malle lets them do most of the talking, often barely prodding them on - his favorite subjects seem to be the eccentric, extremely loquacious folks who naturally gather a curious crowd around them. The final epigraph quotes writer Raymond Queneau (who penned Zazie dans le metro, the basis of one of Malle's most beloved films). "'Why,' he said, 'should one not tolerate this life, when so little suffices to deprive one of it?" A stoic sentiment perhaps but also gracefully affirmative, like this film.

How you can see itThe Documentaries of Louis Malle Eclipse DVD set includes this on the same disc as Vive le Tour (1962) and Human, trop humaine (1973). It is available on Netflix. For a fun, quick sample jump to 6:25 for the close of "Welcome to the Arthouse" (chapter 23 in my video clip series).

What do you think? • Would the low-key delight of Place de la Republique be possible in today's world? Have the ubiquity of cell phone cameras reduced the novelty of a film crew on the streets? Are pedestrians now more hostile to being filmed? Has the proliferation of media (or other factors) made them more or less amenable to this particular type of social interaction, or any type of social interaction with a stranger? Does the film strike you more as a period piece or something timeless? How do you feel about Louis Malle's documentary work vs. American cinema verite efforts? Do you see a strong link between Malle's documentary work and his fiction features?

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Previous week: Stop Making Sense (#89)
Next week: Platform (#87)

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