The story goes that after wrapping on a film starring Catherine Deneuve, having come in under budget and with a day of shooting time left, as he often managed, director Claude Lelouch decided to do something mad and foolish, make a guerrilla short. All you need to make a movie is a gun and a girl, is how Lelouch’s New Wave colleague Jean-Luc Godard had put it. Lelouch set out to show you didn’t need even that, just a fast car and a camera strapped on the front.
And that’s what C’était un Rendezvous is, a single shot from a slow-slung camera, as the car it’s attached to (a Ferrari?) hurtles through the streets of Paris at dawn, urgently changing up and down through the gears, tyres squealing on the corners, odd hazards such as other cars, a delivery vehicle, the rare pedestrian rushing into and out of shot, the car squeezing through the tightest of gaps, lurching from one side of the road to the other, on and on past famous landmarks, through wide boulevards to scarily narrow avenues, before it finally comes to rest with a final shot that explains it all (sort of).
Lelouch was right, a car and a camera is all you need. The low camera and the engine’s growl have the effect of placing the viewer in the car. It sounds almost stupid but this simplest of simple films, no CGI or effects of any sort, has you gripping the arms of chairs, pumping non-existent brakes, shouting “get out of the bloody way” when postmen nervously stick a toe out into the street.
There are so many myths surrounding the film it’s hard to know where to start. But look closer and it’s clear that the car isn’t travelling as fast as you at first think. It’s also entirely likely that those angry gear changes have been post-dubbed. Certainly Lelouch has recently claimed that the car being driven wasn’t a Ferrari 275 GTB but was his own more sedate Mercedes 450SEL (and the blog automobilesdeluxe.tv claims to have proof this was the case). And that the man at the wheel wasn’t a Formula 1 driver but Lelouch himself.
Whether the myths are true or not, Lelouch was arrested by the police for his bit of dawn bravado. This restored version of his original film delivers simple thrills of the most visceral sort, transports us back to Paris when it looked like Paris at ground level – almost all the cars on the street were French, McDonald’s was still tucked up on the other side of the Atlantic – and for the scant nine minutes that the film endures (the camera could only hold ten minutes of film), we’re back there, the car angry as it tears down the innocent streets in the half-light. Doesn’t it look great.
© Steve Morrissey 2013