Complications of inclusivity are recognized from the start of Paris Belong to Us, which ends its opening credits sequence with an epigraph from poet Charles Péguy that states: “Paris belongs to no one.” The inherent contradiction defines Jacques Rivette’s interest in problems of art, ownership, and influence throughout his oeuvre, but especially in his debut feature, where nothing, whether people or places, is promised a lasting stability beyond the immediate moment.
Such contingency plays like a revolving philosophical door, where viewer expectations are courted one moment, only to be reversed or outright denied in the next. The title itself invites presumptions about “us,” and implies a subsequent frolicking or, at least, relishing of a city’s identity and its romantic connotations. After all, who is “us”? In cinematic terms, one may think of the early films of René Clair like Paris qui Dort or Under the Roofs of Paris, where varying displays of human warmth and communal belonging define the city space, or the famous “We’ll always have Paris” line from Casablanca. Or even The 400 Blows, which commences with wide shots of various Parisian monuments and notable destinations, playing like a dreamy travelogue. By contrast, Rivette’s film opens with a train whizzing through the city, as a single shot, from an unrevealed perspective, looks out from a train’s window. The semantic shift from “us” to “no one” echoes the film’s anonymous perspective, for if a city belongs to no one, it paradoxically belongs to everyone.
To a great extent, the film’s opening provides the map key for following Rivette’s impossibly complex labyrinth of character names, hallways, bedrooms, hotels, and city streets, almost none of which are signposted within a clear cartographic scheme. That is, one must embrace, not resist, contradiction in order to understand its functionality as the guiding logic of urban existence. Within the film’s first 10 minutes, a literature student named Anne (Betty Schneider) is told by a neighbor that her brother, Pierre (Françoise Maistre), is dead, only to spot him moments later at a nearby café. Anne’s new in town, but remember that the train’s arrival didn’t actually reveal her as a passenger. The formal choice implicitly speaks to Anne’s ghostly presence as an audience surrogate, made more apparent by her perpetual lack of both pertinent information and self-confidence within a world that zips by, like a train, without proper context.
Through a string of contacts and meandering connections, Anne is brought into a theater company to be the script girl, though at the encouraging of Gérard (Giani Esposito), the troupe’s director, she’s given the female lead in their production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Anne’s initial reservations stem from her undemanding sense of accomplishment, something Rivette positions in relation to verbose and egomaniacal male counterparts, like Philip (Daniel Crohem), an American expat fleeing McCarthyism, or Juan, an unseen character whose haughty and strong-willed reputation other characters consistently esteem or denigrate, only there’s a significant problem: Juan has killed himself for reasons unclear to everyone, most certainly Anne.
Paris Belong to Us foregrounds its mystery narrative as Anne becomes a sleuth determined to uncover what actually happened to Juan, but Rivette isn’t simply paying homage to Hitchcock or detective films; rather, he’s taking the shell of genre work and refusing to find its ends, since he’s far more concerned with process and textual foreplay than relying upon conventional notions of structure. He’s also consumed by radical leftist politics that inform his depictions of an all-white Paris, where Parisians of color are only referenced or kept off screen entirely. In fact, Anne’s naïveté stems from her inability to recognize the complexities of Juan’s exilic status as a Spaniard. In other words, if “Paris belongs to no one,” it’s because Paris, as an idea, has been perverted beyond repair by nationalistic claims for a superior sovereignty.
To that end, Paris Belong to Us serves as a predecessor for Alain Resnais’s Muriel, as each addresses how national consciousness (the Algerian conflict looms large in both films) corrupts political life. Gérard’s self-absorbed artistry fetishizes Shakespeare as an end and without a sense of its significance to the present, which prompts his subsequent deterioration into suicidal madness. Moreover, Rivette shoots exteriors as vacant spaces where few roam, as if Paris were gradually becoming a purgatory for maladjusted intellectuals who’ve misunderstood how to utilize their privilege for social good. When Anne visits a friend’s apartment, it’s littered with magazine cut-outs of models and fashion, which Rivette intercuts in quick succession, replicating Anne’s claustrophobic distraction. That Paris Belong to Us lacks any sort of conventional resolution to its madness is something of a logical ending for Rivette, who seems to be saying: If Paris belongs to us, then you can keep it.
If one were to rank the "most significant debut features of global cinema not currently on Region A Blu-ray," Jacques Rivette’s masterwork would surely have landed somewhere near the top of the lot. Thankfully, the Criterion Collection’s rescue efforts strike another essential title from the naughty list, though, unfortunately, Paris Belongs to Us’s arrival in high definition isn’t as flawless as one surely hoped. The 2K scan often looks impressive, though just as often it seems blurry and lacking in image clarity, sometimes within the same frame. Certain moments, like an early exchange between Pierre and Anne in an apartment hallway, are dim and fuzzy, as if the restoration team didn’t quite get to put the finishing touches on it. Foreground objects sometimes are even glitchy in some shots and depth seems to come and go from scene to scene. Rivette certainly shot with unconventional lighting schemes, but the flaws here seem more an issue of transfer consistency than any fault of Rivette’s. The monaural track, on the other hand, is mostly strong and clear, if mixed a bit low, meaning the volume might need to be set a few click higher than normal.
Much like the A/V, Criterion’s supplements leave a little to be desired. The only contextual extra is a 25-minute interview with film scholar Richard Neupert, who provides a succinct and useful rundown of Rivette’s aesthetics and how Paris Belong to Us fits into the mix. Neupert makes typical points about the period, from Rivette’s years at Cahiers du Cinéma to the director’s preference for films that unfold like "works in progress," but he also examines some of the film’s formal aspects, including its unique sound design and "maze-like" play with space, as well as how a Rivette character often unwittingly undermines his/her own authority at every turn. Also included is a good looking transfer of Rivette’s 1956 short Le Coup du Berger and an essay by critic Luc Sante.
Jacques Rivette’s debut feature is one of the best films to come out of the French New Wave, so it’s a shame that Criterion’s Blu-ray offers a flawed A/V presentation and thin supplements.