‘One lives a film as one lives the space that one inhabits: as an everyday passage, tangibly.’
— Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion
The art of cinema, with its oft-wandering camera lens, provides a perfect alternative to the experience of walking, an extensive promenade on screen. Walking is more than just a way to explore a place (although it is that in large part), it is also a way of discovering romance – whether with the space itself, with a lover, or even with yourself. It is, as Henri Lefebvre famously theorised, the perfect use of space.
Cinematic wandering occurs around nearly every city that a camera occupies, but there’s a special kind of wandering that only Paris can offer. Almost everyone has a dream of walking around Paris. Everyone knows, too, that exploring a city from the ground is the best way to familiarise yourself with its topography. Life on the street is a metonymic for everyday life, making its occupants feel close to the heart of a city’s existence.
A scene in A Lady In Paris (2012), which screened in Melbourne recently as part of the French Film Festival, recalled a segment of an earlier film featuring it’s now-octogenarian star, Jeanne Moreau. The titular lady strolls wantonly through darkened streets to the strains of a soft trumpet that recalls Miles Davis’ improvisational jazz score for Louis Malle’s masterpiece Elevator to the Gallows (1959) – specifically the sequence in which Moreau wanders, melancholy, in search of her lover. Cars speeding past, lights blurred behind her, shop fronts pass by her, indistinct; all of these elements shape Moreau’s perception of Paris and influence our own perception. Characters who walk in film create a sort of corporeal lens through which we as spectators can feel like we, too, might have a spatial connection to their city, as walking is an intensely sensorial experience defined purely by our relationship to space.
Richard Linklater’s film serial featuring two sometime lovers has recently reprised, although in a very understated way, the romance of simply walking through a city. As fans (myself included) eagerly await its third installment, Before Midnight, coming nine years after its predecessor, Before Sunset, and 18 after Before Sunrise, I am reminded that this is the ultimate in narratives of walking. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, as Celine and Jesse, almost ignore the icons of the cities they inhabit as they use its terrain to explore each other; the feel of the city becomes one with their own intimacy.
In Paris Blues (1961), Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier are expats living in Paris; Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll are visiting for a brief holiday. They couple off and fall in love while walking around the city, more concerned with themselves than they are with the architectural landscape around them. Standing by the Seine one evening, Carroll turns to Poitier and asks, ‘What’s that?’ Without looking away from the river he replies that it’s Notre Dame; the camera never lingers on the cathedral, or reveals it in full, he simply knows it from his surrounds, and as an inhabitant, it means little to him. They spend the evening walking through broad boulevards and cramped, cobblestone streets—the camera much more interested in its characters’ lives, in their own movements, than in distant buildings. ‘What thrilled me so deeply was an ordinary suburban street, filled with lights and shadows,’ wrote Siegfried Kracauer. Woodward states that as tourists they didn’t even get to climb the Eiffel Tower. In A Lady in Paris Moreau declares that real Parisians don’t visit the Louvre; they don’t need to.
Only by traversing a city’s most intimate parts, led by its characters through an atlas of emotion, can we fully realise the depth of its dimensions. ‘The landscape is a character itself’ is fast becoming one of my most hated clichés—instead, we should feel close to the landscape through a character. Its tangibility, its tactility are essential. No one needs to look at the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe; stock shots won’t make us feel anything beyond a flutter of Paris postcard envy. To really see the sites of a city the camera must linger in the street, unveiling the textures of surrounding architecture or the substance of a city’s air. The trailer for Before Midnight reveals Celine and Jesse walking around, and talking, in Greece; after their time in Paris, I hope they can make it just as inviting.
Eloise Ross is a Killings columnist and PhD candidate at La Trobe University. Her research interests include cinematic affect, phenomenologies of sound, and the senses. She infrequently writes at cinemelo.wordpress.com, and tweets more often at @EloiseLoRoss.