‘In Paris you can always hope to find what you had thought lost, your own past or someone else’s.’ Italo Calvino
It’s a bowl of big-finned goldfish swimming in light shot more than a hundred years ago by the Lumière box camera. A crowd of joyful people playing boules. A man where a horse would usually be, between the shafts of a heavy cart, crossing the Pont-Neuf one morning at the turn of the last century, and there above his head the statue of a man on a prancing horse, light as air compared to the heft of every real working man and horse crossing the bridge beneath it.
Apporter le monde au monde. It’s a train going into a tunnel. It’s the flecks on the celluloid in the dark of the mouth of it then the flecks in the light at the end. It’s a little girl laughing in a high-chair, feeding her cat with her spoon. It’s three little girls in big white hats by the side of the Champs-Elysées and one of them trying to get the attention of a silly little dog; it’s the open smile of that lapdog, the happy indifference, the curl of its tail. It’s young men and old men in bowler hats in New York and a paper-boy running across the street between them with the day’s news over his left shoulder. It’s people street-dancing in Mexico. It’s people street-dancing in London, the street bright after rain. It’s Rome, Venice, Dresden, Liverpool; a street scene in Milan where nobody notices the camera; a street scene in Moscow where, halfway through, a middle-aged man stops, wonders what’s happening, watches us back.
It’s the smoke rising off Henri Langlois’s cigarette, filmed by chance by Rohmer. The stone! the American in Le Signe du Lion exclaims and hits his hand against an indifferent wall. The city nearly ruins him. It leaves him down-and-out and then it turns him into a clown. It’s the New York Herald Tribune, Jean Seberg’s voice in the middle of traffic. It’s Romaine Bohringer and Elsa Zylberstein lolling in seventies clothes on a bench at the top of a city hill, art and hope and tragedy ahead of them. It’s Jean-Pierre Leaud running away from home, staying out all night, stealing a bottle of milk for his breakfast and splash-washing his face in a fountain. Decorous, stony Paris belongs to him, and to the gentle Stefan Zweig, who calls it the city of eternal youth, who loves it there because it treats everybody the same, who meets Rainer Maria Rilke in the Paris streets and Rilke tells him he loves Paris because it lets him be anybody; and to Joseph Roth, charmed by how no square of Paris grass is ever forbidden to children, who play all over it wherever it happens to be; and to five-year-old Stephane Grappelli, not yet a street-urchin, being taught how to move to express himself by Isadora Duncan at her dance school; and to Katherine Mansfield, young, ill and dying, and off out into the warm afternoon to buy herself a new hat.
It’s Mistinguett, crossing the stage as light as a leaf wearing a headdress that weighs nearly the same as four housebricks; and Josephine Baker, home at last, the city is the making of her, turns her clowning into art, and there she is, on stage in 1949 playing Mary Queen of Scots, decapitated, singing Ave Maria out of the neck of a headless robe; and it’s Colette and de Beauvoir, both in the same room; it’s the shrug of de Beauvoir at Niagara Falls (I look. What else is there to do? It’s water); and the young Colette, brought to the city, locked in a room by her first husband and told to write something a bit saucy that he can sell, writing instead about the velvety green of the woods, turning saucy pure, making racy guiltless; and the old Colette (who’s just, by the skin of their teeth, saved her last husband from the Nazis), sitting up in bed to have her photo taken, by Lee Miller, reflected upside down in a snowglobe, then showing her careful array of pens and pencils to Miller, making her try each one to feel the point of it; and the middle-aged Colette meeting Josephine Baker and asking her if, by any chance, there’s an English chorus girl at the Folies who sits backstage between acts knitting for her baby. Yes! Josephine Baker says. Colette nods, there’s always one, she says.
Paris nous appartient, all of us, me too; at seventeen, buying a Quintet of the Hot Club of France record from a Paris record shop then bringing it home packed so badly in a rucksack that it emerges curved, good for nothing but throwing in the garden for the dog to jump and catch; and at twenty reading all the de Beauvoir I could find; and at thirty reading all the Colette; and at forty being extensively bitten by fleas in the bed of an expensive Parisienne hotel.
It’s the New York Herald Tribune, Jean Seberg’s voice in the middle of traffic. It’s Romaine Bohringer and Elsa Zylberstein lolling in seventies clothes on a bench at the top of a city hill, art and hope and tragedy ahead of them.
But Paris has never belonged to me more than it did one night when I was about fourteen, hadn’t yet dared even imagine imagining that I’d ever get there for real, and went to see what chanced to be on at the pictures in Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, Scotland, where they sometimes showed foreign films, and where I forgot about time and place for the length of a film about two women in Paris in 1974, a librarian and a really bad magician, who meet by chance and find themselves breaking into a house of poisonous ghosts to rescue a little girl.
Céline and Julie Go Boating (aka Phantom Ladies Over Paris). 1974. Director: Jacques Rivette. Julie: Dominique Labourier. Céline: Juliet Berto (who died young, of breast cancer, and there she is, luminous, beautiful, playing the part). It was made improvisationally, in twenty days. It starts with a simple childlike song and with wildtrack of birds, the sounds of early summer and of unseen children in a city park. Then two strangers follow each other round the city, each trying inadvertently to give the other something she’s lost. Reality and the imagination meet, hit it off, then laughingly burgle the past. It lasts more than three hours, it maddens, it bores, it enthralls. It is literally curious, stares out of itself at its own audiences. It plays with everything it touches. It seems inconsequent, to meander like water. But everything fixed will be bent and discarded, and everything haphazard delivers.
Then it ends in the place it began, ready to do it all over again.
Where else could it happen but in the filmic city of stone and smoke, knownness and anonymity, chic and chicanery, where classical meets playful in such a wise simultaneity? How lightly it goes deep, how profoundly it lightens things, how generously and indifferently it works its transformations.