A Comparison of the Depiction of Paris in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (1995)
Written by Jocelyn Illing
As stated by Ginette Vincendeau (2000) in her chapter “Designs on the Banlieue” from French Film: Texts and Contexts, “Paris, the modern city par excellence, has dominated French cinema” (p. 311). With its “picturesque apartment blocks” and “bustling cafes” (Vincendeau, 2000, p. 311), Paris has served as the perfect backdrop to the romantic encounter. An excellent example of this would be the idyllic and colourful Parisan setting of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 romantic-comedy Amélie. Throughout the film we watch as the title character makes her way around “the Paris of [Jeunet’s] youth, a fairy-tale Paris” (Zalewski, 2001, as cited in Andrew, 2004, p. 34). However, this is not the only representation of Paris in cinema. François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (1995) present two alternative versions of the city. Truffaut offers a wider, although still predictable, lens of Paris through the eyes of Antoine, a young juvenile delinquent exploring the city. His film “offer[s] a complex variation on… ‘the script of delinquency’” (Gillain, 2000, p. 144). This is achieved through not only the images of iconic Parisian structures, but also by inviting us into the home and school of the protagonist. La haine goes one step further by showing the dirtier parts of Paris that are not normally depicted on film, specifically the “banlieue”, the community “where the majority of the immigrant population lives” (Vincendeau, 2000, p. 312). In my essay I wish to analyze the different ways in which these films depict Paris. I will argue that while Jeunet’s tries to construct his own Paris, or to conceal its contents, Truffaut chooses to present Paris in a broader sense, through the eyes of a child. Finally, and most radically, Kassovitz’s film reveals a side of Paris often ignored by cinema: the banlieue.
Within Amélie, Jeunet presents the audience with a highly constructed and idyllic Paris. This was achieved through both meticulous planning and preparation and through different cinematic techniques. In order to create his romanticized version of Paris, Jeunet “[took control of] every element of sound and picture, determining it all in an unalterable script and storyboard” (Andrew, 2004, p. 38). To achieve the look of his romantic Paris, Jeunet “varnish[ed] his colourful images… making them bounce to an upbeat score” (Andrew, 2004, p. 37). His use of filters to produce his colourful world can be best seen in the character introductions in which Amélie narrates their likes and dislikes. The tight framing of Paris can also be seen in the different locations that Jeunet chooses to depict. Throughout the film we see colourful grocery stands, charming cafés and even Paris in the rain. The closest thing to an “ugly” location is the porn shop that Amélie visits, but it still reflects a romantic, sexual Paris through its neon lights. Jeunet also restricts his audience from seeing a broader Paris through his use of tight framing. As Amélie visits the grocery stand, the café and the cinema, she is framed in a medium-close-up, preventing us from thoroughly surveying the setting.
Not only is the setting within Jeunet’s film concealed and limited, but so are the characters. Each character is carefully constructed by both the director’s decisions and Amélie’s narration. At the beginning of the film, Amélie offers character introductions through the framing of their “likes” and “don’t likes” which “define the style and personality of each character” (Andrew, 2004, p. 35). For example, her father hates going to the washroom next to other people and clingy wet swimming trunks, but likes peeling large strips of wallpaper and cleaning and shining his shoes. When we are introduced to the other individuals in which Amélie interacts with on a daily basis, she yet again characterizes them using limited facts. Suzanne, the owner of the café, has a limp, likes athletes who cry with disappointment and dislikes seeing men being humiliated in front of their kids. Gina, the waitress, has a grandmother who was a healer and likes cracking bones. Joseph, Gina’s rejected lover, likes popping bubble wrap. These superficial facts provide the audience with a very narrow scope of who these people are, thus breaking them down into caricatures, rather than depicting them as real, multi-dimensional humans. Amélie also represents limitation through her purpose and actions within the narrative. She spends the majority of the film trying to help people by solving the little mysteries in their lives. However, as argued by Jim Morrissey (2008), “Amélie seems far less likely to move from the personal to the political” (p. 103). She is so entrapped within her own little world that she does not acknowledge the larger problems that are happening in Paris such as its “racial and religious division, socio-economic hardship and crime” (Morrissey, 2008, p. 103). Rather than facing the real world, “Amélie only sees in Paris what Jeunet allows her to see” (Morrissey, 2008, p. 103): a romanticized Paris where people’s problems are easy to fix using her scheming mind and charming personality.
The best example of Jeunet’s constructed Paris is the scene in which Amélie has her “perfect moment” walking through the streets. As she strolls through the city, basking in the soft lighting and warm glow of the sun, the narrator exclaims that “It’s a perfect moment. Soft light, a scent in the air, the quiet murmur of the city.” The medium-close up focusses on the blissful Amélie, giving the audience a peek at the beautiful buildings and trees behind her as she passes by the Seine river, a defining marker of Paris. As she walks in slow motion, we are transported into an almost dreamlike space, a Paris that is almost too beautiful to be real. Accompanied by the music of an accordion, the scene is a direct depiction of the romanticized Paris that we associate with French films. When she spots the blind man on the street, Amélie is provided with the opportunity to not only do a good deed by leading him to his destination, but also a chance to construct her own image of Paris. As she walks with the man, she describes to him different things they pass by, such as the horse head statue that is missing an ear, the florist laughing and the sugar plum ice cream. Together these emblems create the beautiful, quirky and optimistic version of Paris that she lives in. Although this moment is quick and fleeting, it demonstrates both the director’s and the protagonist’s power in constructing their own ideas of the city of Paris.
The 400 Blows provides audiences with a wider scope of Paris using the cinematic techniques of the New Wave. During the New Wave, “cinema was shaped by forces as abstract as the growth of film criticism that stressed mise-en-scène over thematics and as concrete as technological innovations in motion picture cameras and sound recorders” (Neupert, 2010, p. 3). Filmmakers were making quick, cheap and youthful films using a “combination of new, less expensive filming techniques, stories set in the streets that could appeal to young audiences, and new portable production equipment” (Neupert, 2010, p. 39). In his film, Truffaut uses the tracking shot and a wider lens to present Paris. The opening sequence of the film establishes this New Wave aesthetic and offers us our first glimpse of Paris. Shot in black and white, the sequence consists of a tracking shot through the streets of Paris, with great emphasis on the Eiffel tower. As the camera moves down the streets, the Paris landmark is always in sight. We pass by beautiful apartment blocks, older buildings, and the train station, while listening to a whimsical soundtrack. Although the soundtrack suggests a manipulated Paris, The 400 Blows still provides the audience with a less constructed view of Paris than Amélie through its use of a wide lens, black and white shots and a larger variety of locations. Apart from the stereotypical views of the Eiffel tower, we are shown lesser explored areas such as the classroom, the police station and the juvenile detention centre. Truffaut presents us with a “peculiar quality of space” portrayed through a “binary opposition” (Gillain, 2000, p. 144). While the inside shots in the school or the home are static and tightly framed, the outside shots are longer and more mobile. While Antoine is “[a] prisoner indoors”, outside he is “free to roam, play and explore” the streets of Paris (Gillain, 2000, p. 144). This binary opposition provides us with a larger scope of Paris and its effects on the youth.
Antoine is a direct representation of the youth culture of the New Wave. He is the juvenile delinquent, experiencing Paris on his own terms. An important aspect of the New Wave was the emerging “‘youth culture’” that affected both the audience and content of cinema (Neupert, 2010, p. 15). This new generation of youths were concerned with art and could be described as young cinephiles. Antoine reflects this culture through his rebellious ways. He skips class, gets arrested and is even sent to a detention centre. Antoine does what he wants when he wants and is perfectly content wandering around Paris with his friend. He represents this new generation of young people who are curious and independent, breaking the rules in order to live a fulfilling life. Throughout the film we bear witness to his acts of juvenile delinquency that eventually lead to his sentence to the detention centre. However, this does not hold him down, for he eventually escapes to the sea. His confidence and willingness to break the rules both reflect the attitudes of filmmakers during the New Wave and the techniques that emerged during this creative era.
The New Wave techniques and emerging influence of youth culture come together for the classroom scene in which Antoine gets into trouble with his teacher. The wide lens of the camera surveys the room as young boys pass around an image of a pin-up girl. The mobile camera follows the photo as it gets passed across the room, the boys snickering at their mischievous behaviour, until it suddenly swings to the teacher as he commands the class’s attention. This sudden jolt focusses both the boys’ and our own gazes back to the teacher and brings to attention the presence of the camera. The camera further establishes its role as producer of the gaze after the teacher sends Antoine to the corner. As Antoine continues to act up behind the teacher’s back, the camera swings back and forth between Antoine and the suspecting teacher. Through this camera movement Truffaut not only gives us a wider scope of the setting but also determines the kind of “cat-and-mouse” relationship between Antoine and his teacher.
As the film moves outside to the streets of Paris, we are granted an even larger view of the city. This is best exemplified when the gym teacher takes his class outside for some exercise. We watch in deep focus as the class disappears into the foreground, heading into the city. As the teacher exits the gates to the school, he ushers each student past him until they are all out. A high angle shot then presents us with a view of the streets and the city square as the students trail behind the teacher. Not only does the shot present us with a clear picture of the streets of Paris, but it also captures key moments of rebellion. Watching the class, we begin to notice that the students are peeling off one by one to explore the streets for themselves. By shooting this scene at such a high angle, Truffaut emphasizes the emptiness of the streets once the children disappear. It is within these shots that the camera allows us to witness the acts of juvenile delinquency occurring within the city as the children seek to rebel against authority and explore.
Kassovitz’s La haine diverges even further from Amélie’s romanticized Paris by revealing the parts of the city that are not normally depicted in films. His Paris is rougher, consisting of gangs, drug dealing and the less than ideal living conditions of the city’s lower-class immigrant population. The film has the same black and white aesthetic as Truffaut’s film but takes it one step further into unexplored or ignored territory. Specifically, Kassovitz chooses to explore the ghetto communities of Paris, known as the banlieue, and its inhabitants. Ginette Vincendeau (2000) argues that La haine presents a “polished and seductive” depiction of the banlieue (p. 316). It is an aesthetic that gives the film its “cool” atmosphere (Vincendeau, 2000, p. 316) while simultaneously revealing the grittiness of this part of Paris. The film explores a wide range of locations that put into contrast the banlieue with the more romantic and classic parts of the city. One moment we will be with the three protagonists in an abandoned building filled with graffiti and the next we’ll find them sauntering into a prestigious art gallery where it is obvious that they do not fit in. The setting of social interaction among the members of the banlieue also differ substantially from the average French film. Instead of drinking coffee in cafes or going out dancing, the youth have made their own spaces for social gathering, particularly on rooftops or in abandoned lots (Vincendeau, 2000, p. 313-314).
The film also takes a sociological approach, “tak[ing] a genuine interest in the working-class suburb as setting and topic” (Vincendeau, 2000, p. 313). Marginalized members of society are represented both as the targets of police brutality and racial profiling and as a strong community built on friendship. The film’s opener, a montage sequence of police and protest, sets the scene for the sociological context of the film. Through grainy news footage Kassovitz presents us with images of police brutality and protest. This footage foreshadows the fate of the protagonists as they fall victim to the police later in the film. The hierarchal relationship between authorial figures and the public is further explored through the protagonists’ encounters with the figures outside of their social circle. For example, they experience racial profiling as the news reporter assumes that they are part of the riots and are further discriminated against when they are turned down at the hospital where their friend is in critical condition. When visiting the art gallery, the men are again singled out due to their clothing and social etiquette. However, it is always apparent that the three men, and their close circle, have each other’s backs.
The strong sense of community is best depicted during the rooftop sequence. Unable to afford to hang out at “traditional venues”, the boys meet up with others on a rooftop filled with graffiti and rubble. The diverse crowd makes the most of the space, setting up a hot-dog station and chatting with each other. As the protagonists line up for food, the sense of community is strongly felt as the cook shakes Hubert’s hand and gives him a discount. Kassovitz’s camera circles around the rooftop, exploring the different conversations happening among the crowd and the different deals going down. The topics of conversation, mainly of drugs and jail time, differs substantially from those in both Amélie and The 400 Blows. However, their little gathering is soon broken up as the police come to kick them out, stating that they do not belong there. It seems as if Paris has not truly welcomed these members into society and is actively trying to squeeze them out into the confinement of the slums.
In conclusion, although it is common for Paris to be depicted in the cinema as a romantic, there are more representations of the city that spark conversations about representation. While Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie depicts a brightly coloured and dreamy Paris, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (1995) work to present different perspectives of the city. Truffaut’s film presents Paris as a place of exploration for the juvenile delinquent through the use of New Wave cinema techniques. Kassovitz, on the other hand, uses both the aesthetics and sociological conditions of the banlieue to depict the lives of the marginalized immigrants in Paris that are often absent from the screen.
Andrew, D. (2004). Amélie, or le fabuleux destin du cinéma français. Film Quarterly, 57(3), 34-46. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/fq.2004.57.3.34
Gillain, A. (2000) The script for delinquency: François Truffaut’s Les 400 coups (1959). In S. Hayward & G. Vincendeau (Eds.), French Film: Texts and Contexts (pp. 142-157) Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge
Morrissey, J. (2008). Paris and voyages of self-discovery in Cléo de 5 à 7 and Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain. French Cinema, 8(2), 99-110. doi: 10.1386/sfc.8.2.99/1
Neupert, R. J. (2010). Cultural Contexts: Where Did the Wave Begin? A History of the French New Wave Cinema. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 3-44. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucalgary-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3444956.
Vincendeau, G. (2000). Designs on the Banlieue: Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995). In S. Hayward & G. Vincendeau (Eds.), French Film: Texts and Contexts (pp. 310-327) Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge