' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: C'était un rendez-vous (1976)

Friday, December 18, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: C'était un rendez-vous (1976)

In “13 Days of France”, the crown jewel of Olympics documentaries, chronicling the1968 Grenoble Winter Games, director Claude Leouch literally attached a camera to a skier as he followed another skier racing down the hill. To Lelouch, no matter how effective standard issue television camera angles were at capturing a skier fighting against g-forces and flying off hills, they did not sufficiently put you in a skier’s skis, living out the sensation of shushing down a mountain at speeds, it is sometimes said, you would not feel safe driving a car. And therein lies the irony of “C’était un rendez-vous”, Lelouch’s 1976 9-minute short film where he modified his move from “13 Days of France”, attached a camera to his own Mercedes-Benz 450SEL and filmed himself racing the boulevards of Paris at speeds you would not feel safe, well, driving a car, never mind downhill skiing. 

Lelouch’s 10-km route takes him from the Boulevard Périphérique, past such notable Parisian landmarks as the Tuileries and eventually up Montmartre, ending at the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. The latter is glimpsed, of course, in the beginning of John Frankenheimer’s “Ronin” (1998), the most famous of all Parisian movie scenes. [Editor: fact check this, plz.] “Ronin” had an astounding car chase through the streets of Paris, mostly shot without music a la Lelouch’s short, just the roar of the engine, though Frankenheimer maximized the drama by cutting between various camera angles inside and outside the car while utilizing close-ups of the actor’s faces. “C’était un rendez-vous”, on the other hand, just sets up the camera and guns the engine, letting you feel the contours of your own face freaking out as Lelouch turns theoretical postcard moments - there’s the Arc de Triomphe! - into moments of sheer terror. Essentially you are transformed into a version of Driver’s Ed teacher, stomping your foot in vain for the passenger brake as you careen toward landmarks, run red light after red light, even briefly going against traffic, a la “Ronin”, to avoid the cars in your own lane.

The latter is a necessary point. Though Lelouch made his drive at dawn to minimize automobile and foot traffic, there are still other cars, still occasional pedestrians. It is why Lelouch was arrested after the film’s premiere, though he was released, never charged. Granted, you see him slowing down at one point when the situation dictates it, but he is still flying blind around corners. It’s as if those sorts of questions about innocent extras as collateral damage in fictional films are rendered uncomfortably real, as if Lelouch, renowned figure of the French New Wave, had looked at the spate of impressively raw movie car chases, from “Bullitt” to “The French Connection” to “The Seven-Ups”, and sought to take the vérité as far as he could go. 

“C’était un rendez-vous” translates to “It was a meeting” and, literally speaking, that’s what the movie is: a dude taking a drive to meet his gal. When he finally stops the car, though, and hops out, his gal ascending a hill for an embrace, what you feel is not exactly romance; it’s relief.

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