Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
► Paris Calligrammes is in UK cinemas from 27 August.
When Ulrike Ottinger departed her native Germany for a new life in Paris, “twenty years young… and determined to become an important artist”, she did so in a glorious piece of early 1960s pop art: an Isetta bubble car. She had embellished it herself, with painted owls. The car made it to France, but gave up the ghost with a hundred kilometres to go, leaving its driver to hitchhike. This anecdote sets a warm, self-deprecating tone for Ottinger’s autobiographical essay film, which sees her take up residence in Paris in 1962, immediately immersing herself in a cultural scene rich with art, anecdote and controversy. “I’d never put my eyes in my pockets,” she says, “but in Paris, they grew wider and wider.”
“A spectacle for those who don’t keep their eyes in their pockets!” is the promise made to the audience by the showpeople of Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), one of the films cited by Ottinger as having caused her to directly associate cinema with France and the French language. As a child, she says, “I associated the mystery of onscreen with the mystery of the language.”
Ottinger’s own work would ultimately see her celebrated as a key figure of the New German Cinema of the 1980s (or indeed, as the New York Times argued it in 2009, “a one-woman avant-garde opposition” to its “sulky male melodramas”); but this film details the extent to which her sensibilities were awakened by the passion for film that she had expected, and was gratified to find, in France.
Marcel Carné made Les Enfants du Paradis during the Nazi occupation of France; its designer and composer were both Jews on the run, and worked from hiding. The Paris to which Ottinger moved in 1962 was one still transformed and traumatised by the tumult of the war years.
Ottinger became friends with another transplanted German, the bookseller Fritz Picard, whose Librairie Calligrammes had taken its name from the writings of Guillaume Apollinaire. Many of the books Picard sold had been left behind by Jews fleeing the occupation. His place became a hangout for Jewish and political émigrés, who left their signatures and sketches in Picard’s guestbook; Ottinger’s camera pores over its contents as she happily reports having searched for it for three years only for it to unexpectedly show up just as she commenced filming.
From Picard’s “cathedral of books”, Ottinger’s film moves smoothly on to the famed bars and cafes of the Left Bank, where artists and writers gathered; and the horrors of the Algerian war, which increasingly informed their conversation as the 60s bedded in. The young Ottinger learns of the brutal treatment of Algerian protestors by French police via Jacques Panijel’s documentary Octobre à Paris (1962) – not just because she is a film obsessive, but because there is a news blackout concerning the violent crackdown. She also befriends Philippe and Ré Soupault, artists who had fled to Algiers during the Nazi occupation of France, and whose on-the-ground experience “slightly dampened our hotheaded enthusiasm for the new socialist Algeria”. Ottinger becomes a regular at the Cinémathèque française, and the art films of Jean-Luc Godard and William Klein further inform both her political awareness and her work.
Throughout this account of her adventures – which rarely dips into the personal, except to briefly detail apartments she occupied or pieces of art she made – Ottinger foregrounds the significance of physical objects and physical experiences. The influence of France’s imperial history is represented through footage of a huge auction of the possessions of one of Vietnam’s last remaining French colonial families. “Each object has a story of its own,” Ottinger observes, as the hammer falls again and again, and a fortune is redispersed. “If we learn it, it comes back to life.” She shows us the legendary founder of the Cinémathèque française, Henri Langlois, laughingly showing off a gift he has received from Alfred Hitchcock: the mummified head from the ending of Psycho (1960).
This film is full of such moments: witty and resonant; sometimes provocative; always warmed by Ottinger’s affection for what she is observing and her tenderness towards her younger, wide-eyed self. “How do I make a film from the perspective of a very young artist I remember,” she asks at the beginning of this work, “with the experience of the older artist I am today?” Well, just like this will do beautifully, thank you. Post-war Paris may be well-trodden territory, but this is a fresh, poignant and utterly absorbing tour thereof.