With Paris Calligrammes, German filmmaker and photographer Ulrike Ottinger looks back at her youth spent in the City of Lights in the 1960s. It was a time when the city’s streets were an especially enticing spectacle, its philosophical effervescence sparing no one. Walking its streets, you bumped into Dadaists, Situationists, Marxists, and Heideggerians, maybe even witnessed Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre handing out flyers. The cafés, the bookstores, the art galleries, the jazz clubs, the movie theaters, and, of course, the protests—to be in the city was to witness the world in transformation.
Across this fairy tale-like mélange of archival and present-day footage paired with voiceover narration, Ottinger hitchhikes to Paris after her Isetta breaks down, guided by dreams of being “a very important artist,” and is almost immediately carousing with Tristan Tzara, Jean Rouch, Jean Genet, and Pierre Bourdieu. She sees her story as a kind of communal history, the personal as reflective of the spirit of the times. But while Ottinger accesses the most consequential of decades through nostalgia, she does so with humility. There’s no navel-gazing for its own sake here. Instead, the filmmaker uses her experience as a lens through which a memory of the world is rendered ghostly, as we realize so many of the objects, places, and temporalities glimpsed and mentioned throughout Paris Calligrammes, from the cine clubs to the bookshop guest books signed by the likes of Marcel Marceau and Paul Celan, no longer exist as bastions of everyday life—in Paris or anywhere else for that matter.
The film’s first half hews closely to the approach honed by French self-fiction writer Annie Ernaux (particularly in 2008’s The Years), where collective value is produced, or revealed, through the particularities of one individual’s life (read: the author’s). In Ernaux’s work, as in Paris Calligrammes, autobiography is a means of sharing a feeling that might move, or affect, more than the one who directly experienced it. These works are less about capturing universal experience than savoring the “collective value,” as Ernaux would put it, of an experience that isn’t necessarily ours, but whose significance we relish just the same.
In one of the most beautiful sequences of the film, shot at the Bibliothèque Nationale, the narration comes to a halt, and it’s a welcome relief. Instead of the coldness of British actress Jenny Agutter’s voice in the English version of the film (Fanny Ardant provides the voiceover in the French version, and Ottinger herself in the German version), we only hear the silence of the magnificent library and its many specters. Walter Benjamin spent his time there when not strolling through the arcades. We stare at patrons leafing through enormous books of paintings and drawings—not a digital device in sight, despite the footage being contemporary. It’s as if the space is too sacred for the vulgarity of the digital to be allowed entrance. Library attendants quietly bring book requests to patrons, the way waiters once brought espresso to writers at brasserie terraces and then got out of their hair for an entire afternoon.
At one point, we’re told of a distinctly Parisian hunger for the literary so great that it was common for people to stop by a bookstore before dropping their bags at a hotel when arriving in the city, as if reading were just as fundamental a human act as urination. It’s as if literature simply couldn’t wait. And because Ottinger so effectively captures the hunger for knowledge and existential depth that Paris seems to trigger, it’s unfortunate that the poetic veil of Paris Calligrammes begins to lift around its midpoint. The film becomes a little too invested in rushing through historical events, as well as over-reliant on music, and as such strays from Ottinger’s feelings as a storytelling prism. A sense of objectivity largely takes the place of her initially diaristic impressions. Here, the critical engagement with France’s colonial history of violence also gives rise to awkward moments in a narration that deems colonies “exotic” multiple times, inheriting a colonialist gaze against its best wishes.
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