The weather is unseasonably warm and the sky inconceivably clear for my recent stroll along the Seine. We wander past the party boat Maxim’s, a floating billboard for the voguish restaurant featured in Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi, toward La Tour d’Argent, inspiration for Gusteau’s restaurant in the Pixar film Ratatouille.
With Notre Dame Cathedral behind scaffolding in the background, the riverbank isn’t quite as I remember from watching Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron lock-step in An American in Paris. But it’s remarkably quiet, save for the odd jogger bouncing past. It strikes me as incredibly foolish that, in 30-odd years visiting Paris, I can’t recall ever being here. I’ve been too busy seeking out the new, exploring the high-number arrondissements, avoiding Parisian clichés.
“Non, pas cliché!” says Juliette Dubois, stopping me. Apparently I’ve got the 5th arrondissement all wrong. “The quai is not an American vision of Paris but the French Paris, the ideal Paris. And that hasn’t changed.”
Dubois is the founder of Ciné Balade, the only walking tour in the City of Light inspired by French cinema, from the Lumière brothers to Michel Gondry. A going concern for more than a decade, it caters mostly to Parisians and French tourists; Dubois laments that English isn’t her strong suit. Yet interest from outsiders is growing, making up about 30 per cent of her client base.
And on this October afternoon, a rare day off, she’s kindly agreed to guide me around her workplace – though she hardly seems put out, ambling down the middle of a Latin Quarter road like a young Jeanne Moreau, crushing my New World attitudes about her old world. Far from whisking me past the touristy bits on our route – the line snaking out of the English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, for instance – she appears to be inhaling it all deeply.
A week earlier, in the wake of Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard’s death, Dubois launched a new tour following his career. It joins an already packed schedule featuring François Truffaut, Agnès Varda, even Woody Allen (Parisians have no beef with the censured director’s Paris period). A lifelong Parisienne, who left a budding career in cinematography to orchestrate these balades, she clearly feels in her element on the streets of Paris.
Nevertheless, “Le Paris de Jean-Luc Godard” has been a tricky tour to choreograph. It begins at the Jardin du Luxembourg, the mathematically mowed classical gardens where the director shot scenes for his first short film, Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick. But it is less animated, less linear, less tour-guide-y than, say, her Varda walk. Varda’s cheeky personality is easy to capture on the streets around Montparnasse, where she often worked. Godard’s style was more esoteric, more experimental. Dubois had to study to get it right. “With him, it’s a lot of technique, and that’s not easy to communicate,” she says. “It isn’t organic.”
And as you’d expect with such a niche experience, “My clients know him very, very well.”
Dubois leads me from the park to the Deco neon marquee of the Cinéma du Panthéon. At 115, it’s the oldest movie theatre in Paris, with a cocktail “salon” decorated by Catherine Deneuve and film-themed bookstore in the adjacent building. Guests of the Godard walk will likely have many of the books on display. But they’ll doubtless be charmed by the theatre – so incredibly meta, it not only inspired Godard as a kid in the 1940s but also supported his work as a budding
The Left Bank is loaded with cinemas, like the Champo on Rue des Ecoles. “Americans love the Champo,” Dubois says, name-checking that foremost of cinephiles, Quentin Tarantino. When I ask how the Latin Quarter has changed in the 30 years she’s been learning its ins and outs, she doesn’t hesitate. “Fewer bookshops.”
The saving grace of this particular tour is the special context surrounding of midcentury Parisian cinema. Nouvelle artists like Godard rejected the studios where earlier directors shot. Nor could they gain access inside the real buildings they would’ve preferred to film in. They took to the streets instead. There is hardly a block on our route that didn’t act in a supporting role for Godard and his ilk. Dipping into the Sorbonne campus, where Dubois herself studied the history of cinema and specialized in Truffaut, we pass the actual Panthéon. The buildings around the Sorbonne, with their rows of Corinthian columns and cobbled forecourts, stood in for any number of official locations across the Godard canon.
For the interiors in A Bout de Souffle – aka Breathless – Godard made do with the former Hotel de Suede on Quai Saint-Michel. The painted Louis XVI headboard in “chambre 12″ became a backdrop to much smoking and Breton shirt-wearing, and even spawned a movie by Claude Ventura and Xavier Villetard before the hotel was completely overhauled into its current incarnation as Les Rives de Notre-Dame
Even after the renovations, in real life Godard considered the hotel his home away from home. When we stop in to inspect the black and white film stills mounted in the lobby, the manager recalls the last time he stayed, aided by a walking stick and a minder. Despite the lack of bookstores and the perennial invasion of university students, Godard couldn’t quit the Latin Quarter.
On a glorious day like today I can understand why it might appeal, even to a melancholy auteur. I muse aloud at what a wash-out our walk might have been if the weather had turned dire, as predicted.
“Oh no, no, no,” says Dubois. “Just imagine the scene in Midnight in Paris when it starts to rain. To be in the skin of the character … It’s perfect.”
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