Friday, July 22, 2016
René Clement | Paris brûle-t-il? (Is Paris Burning?)
a film that forgets its own story
by Douglas Messerli
Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay, based on the book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre), René Clement (director) Paris brûle-t-il? (Is Paris Burning?) / 1966
Having just watched Volker Schlöndorff’s well-done fictional rendering of the near destruction of Paris at the end of World War II, I was looking forward to seeing the 1966, supposedly more historically accurate, version, based on the book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Is Paris Burning?
Well, Paris, as we all know, did not burn, but as The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther suggested, perhaps its audience should be burning out of anger and disappointment over René Clement’s lumbering film. Clement, of course, has made great films in the past, and there are moments here in which he again demonstrates his obvious cinematic talents.
Gore Vidal’s and Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling script, however, sucks all the drama from the film, as the two sides of the Resistance movement, the Gaullists and the Communists, are often difficult to identify, and the slight stories that would have given the film some deeper substance, fizzle before they even begin.
The dazzling international cast, with almost every major name in Hollywood and European filmmaking (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Jean-Pierre Cassel, George Chakiris, Alain Delon, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Yves Montand, Anthony Perkins, Simone Signoret, Robert Stack, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Orson Welles are just some of its actors) utterly begs any sense of realism for this film; but even worse, many of these figures are trotted on stage for a few moments simply to disappear soon after in the whirls of action. Some of these numerous luminaries appear so briefly that you might even miss them.
For a short stretch we see Leslie Caron attempting, through the negotiations of Swedish Counsel Nordling (Welles) with Nazi General von Choltitz (Gert Frobe), to free her hero husband; but when, soon after, he is killed, all three suddenly disappear as we rush forward to the various Resistance groups debating whether to wait and go ahead with action.
Although we know a decision is necessary because of their fears of Nazi destruction of the city, the script seems to have forgotten that looming factor and gets boiled down in the pot a feu of side stories, many of which go absolutely nowhere. Von Choltitz and his wrath is almost forgotten as various young men are sent away from the city to confer with Paton, Bradley, and other Allied generals, asking that instead of skirting the city on their way to Germany, they take Paris first in order to save it.
Nordling appears in only two short scenes, having been relegated in this work to a minor figure whose only major act, apparently, is to arrange a short-lived ceasefire. In fact as Resistance groups begin their attacks, they too seem have forgotten or never even known that the bridges, factories, and grand monuments have all been wired which, in the heat of their actions, might easily have been detonated by the Germans. The Germans kill one group of, presumably, young Communists, but seem entirely incompetent once the Gaullists join in.
In short, Is Paris Burning? is filled with sketches that might, given a little development, have created a film of fear and trembling, but ends up, instead, as a celebratory march through the streets by De Gaulle’s and American troops. Hurray and all that! Thank heaven for Maurice Jarre’s rousing score!
But where von Choltitz has gone, and what happened to his devious plots we never discover. When we hear someone, at the end of the film, screaming out of an open phone, “Is Paris burning? Is Paris burning?” it seems more like a comical one-liner instead of a terrorizing possibility that fortunately was thwarted.
Three hours is indeed a long time to watch, as Crowther summarized it, a “floodlike flow of action” with “a dumbfounding lack of suspense.” The real events are served better, surely, by Schlöndorff’s fictional fable than by Clement’s rambling realism.
Los Angeles, July 22, 2015