Is Paris Burning? (Clément, 1966)

I’ve been meaning to watch this René Clément epic for some time. That’s certainly what it is. The saga of the Nazis defeat and departure from Paris – which I saw most recently in Volker Schlondorff’s Diplomacy – is here given the treatment not unlike maybe The Longest Day or even The Dirty Dozen in its scope.

That the film somehow feels American is maybe a testament to the screenplay, which is by Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal. It comes right between two great films of the director’s, Joy House and Rider on the Rain, both of which are taut thrillers. The latter (and inferior) of the two is a truly American vehicle, featuring Charles Bronson.

I wonder if a lot of actors did Clément a favor by being in the film. Anthony Perkins and Yves Montand? Barely in it (especially the latter). Same with Kirk Douglas. I know this was a passion project, but to have names of that caliber take 2-8 minute turns in a film that runs nearly three hours is remarkable. Oddly enough, I wonder if The Thin Red Line is a good comparable here. Very different psychology and mood, but in the sense of a huge, ensemble piece, that doesn’t really focus its attention on the stars as much as the battles at hand…?

This feels like the kind of war film that couldn’t really be made today. Part of it, again, is its daring scope. Part of it is Clément’s very classic, superior blocking. Part of it is the mood that’s somehow both jaunty and grim. And part of it is the quick insights we get into characters who are hardly on-screen at all (and the willingness to see them go from heroic to dead in the blink of an eye, which rings quite real).

That jauntiness comes from a great score from Maurice Jarre, but also beautiful asides like this one, where Henri Karcher (Jean Pierre-Cassel) has momentarily commandeered the house of an older woman in order to get a better vantage point to return fire to German soldiers.

Clément focuses as heavily on the woman, who tries to keep her tea clear of dust, while being unable to take her eyes off of the action in her living room:

Her reactions are hilarious, but it’s not just cute and fun. She’s so emboldened and overjoyed that the French have shown up with military power. The scene plays as entirely comic, but it’s not without danger. The 2-shot below is dusty and threatening:

Clément also mixes a whole lot of documentary footage in:

It’s startling, emotional, and really poignantly used. Clément doesn’t lean on the footage too heavily, but when he does use it tends to be quick establishing cuts (tanks entering the city) or cathartic outbursts.

The director also, despite working with a 2 hour, 53 minute film, really does pick his moments. He takes, for example, over a full minute to get the bell at Notre Dame ringing at the end. Overlong in another sequence, it’s perfect here. The shots slowly build and even feel dangerous at times as the huge structure looms in the foreground. The sheer amount of footage it takes to get the bell to ring is emblematic of the importance of the moment  historically: it’s not just duration since the average shot length in here isn’t particularly long; it’s also the diverse coverage; and the daily effort it would take to do so is also noteworthy and immense.

See the clip below (sorry about the black frames and lack of sound). The first 35 seconds have about five different set-ups of the bell. You get it again around 1:50, 2:35, 2:50, etc. Combined with all of the archival footage it’s really celebratory and has great momentum (check out the cut at 3:05 from the pan/tilt of the swinging bell to the rapidly moving aerial shot):

Here’s a great example of Clément’s really polished blocking (SPOILERS if you watch past 3:30). First look at the fluid transition from archival footage to the director’s own at 1:27. It’s a great match of screen direction, handheld camera, and movement. The clip starting at 1:41 is also accomplished. Clément stays handheld but greats great choreography (the long tracking shot at 2:04). When the focus shifts away from Anthony Perkins’ character and to Cassel’s the camera stabilizes. The tracking shot at 5:05 is much more fluid. The small operation with the older gentleman as he raises his rifle (pan right) and then lowers it (pan back left to the 2-shot) around 5:10 is fantastic.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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