There’s a (justly) famous sequence in Boudu Saved from Drowning where Renoir took his camera out onto the street and shot part of his movie in the middle of an uncontrolled Parisian crowd. The people who gathered were fascinated by the film crew, and Renoir didn’t even try to direct them: in the shots surrounding Michel Simon being pulled out of the Seine perhaps of a third of the onlookers are staring directly at the camera. The idea of blending a movie into what’s actually happening on the street has always fascinated me, and the French have always been the least afraid of it: Renoir would do it again in The Crime of Monsieur Lange, and it pops up over and over in the New Wave’s movies. (American cinema has at least one sterling example, in the running block-long argument between Rupert Pupkin and Masha in The King of Comedy.) Whenever I see one of these scenes I’m always hit by the question, “What would happen if the filmmaker turned away from his actors and simply asked someone in the crowd what they were up to that day?”
Louis Malle’s Place de la République answers my question, right down to its “What would the dog do if it caught the car?” overtones. In 1974 Malle set up shop near a narrow rectangle of greenery in a working class section of Paris and just started talking to people, with no attempt to hide his cameras or mics. He picked a rapid, flowing stretch of sidewalk, with shoppers, vendors, street workers, and a surprising number of directionless souls constantly bumping elbows with each other; at times there’s scarcely room for him to stand still as the throngs mill around him. Some of the interviews are very brief–one good-looking woman won’t believe the crew isn’t just trying to hit on her, for instance–but the idle, the attention-starved, the retired, and the crazy, all these have plenty of time to talk. A roundfaced grandmother who begins singing what were probably popular songs in the pre-war cafes, a graying, mild-mannered Jewish man who somehow made it through the Occupation without being deported but who today seems defeated by heart problems, a vapid cute blonde with huge freckles who’s just had her purse stolen, a handsome but feckless black man who turns out to be a chronic psychiatric patient, a young housewife who insists she isn’t racist (“I could even marry a Spaniard”) but who’s almost visibly nauseated when Malle asks, “What about an Algerian?”–these are typical examples. Perhaps halfway through there’s a cock-up out by the curb: a businessman who feels “his” space has been stolen by a delivery truck is outraged when a gendarme points out that city parking spaces aren’t reserved. “You mean it’s whoever gets here first?” he asks, sounding like Manuel trying to make out one of Basil Fawlty’s instructions.
The film gets even better when Malle returns for a second, and especially a third, day. By now people like the middle-aged woman who sells lottery tickets, and who insisted during the first day’s shooting that she didn’t want to be filmed, couldn’t be happier to open up for the cameras. The blonde with the big freckles also returns, but when Malle gives her a camera and turns her loose, she can only think to ask people how their sex lives are. Finally a cockeyed woman who barely registered on the first day reappears–this time she launches into a long, extravagantly detailed story dating back to her work for a German company during the war, her recent detention at the Swiss-German border, and who knows what else. The blonde, camera in hand, pretends to listen but is plainly aching for everyone to turn their attention back to her, where it belongs. The sight of a blonde carrying a camera causes first a young man, then an older man, to pause, swelling the circle; this small knot of people causes others to stop, each looking from one to the other of them as the cockeyed woman continues her rant. Finally they grow listless, and begin to drift away, sliding just past Malle’s camera, and one by one melting away into the twilight.