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Foreplays #17: Jean Rouch’s “Gare du Nord”

A short film contribution to the 1965 portmanteau film “Paris vu par…” is stunning not just for its bravura but in how it tells its story.
Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Jean Rouch's Gare du Nord (1965) is free to watch below. From December 2018 through February 2019, MUBI is showing the retrospective The Groundbreaking Ethnography of Jean Rouch in the United States.
Jean Rouch's Gare du Nord is my favorite episode of Paris vu par… (1965)—a portmanteau film composed of six stories, each set in a different part of Paris. Rouch blends a fully fictional framework—a narrative about the crisis of a couple, Odile (Nadine Ballot) and Jean-Pierre (Barbet Schroeder)—with the kind of documentary techniques embraced by cinéma-vérité: the story unfolds in real time, across only four shots, in everyday locations, with the characters followed by a shaky handheld camera. This approach is stunning not just for its bravura, but also for the ways in which it contributes to telling and structuring a story full of mood changes, bursts of intensity, passages of treacherous calm, and surprising turns and punches.
Of all the episodes of Paris vu par …, Gare du Nord is the one in which the chosen neighborhood plays the strongest part. The geographical spots where the action takes place are not a mere backdrop; rather, they have a fully charged, entirely dramatic role. The film reflects on the ways in which human experience is conditioned by the spaces we inhabit, that surround us. As Roland-François Lack points out in a post about the locations of Paris vu par, Rouch traces a topography that "is central to the fiction and important to the characters." This topography not only attests to the origin and destination of the characters's physical movements, but also irradiates and absorbs all the tensions of the film.
Gare du Nord opens with our sensory immersion in the very distress that puts the action in motion: over the title credits, we hear the unpleasant noise of construction works. The first shot presents an elevated vista of the neighborhood—far away, we can see Sacré Coeur cathedral; closer, screen right, the Gare du Nord. A sudden zoom-in expels the cathedral from our view and puts the train station into close-up. Then, a pan takes us from the station to an apartment complex, passing by a huge red crane. The camera zooms-in again, concentrating on one window of the apartment block, where we see a woman watering her plants. This opening sharply delineates the conflict that Odile is about to expose to her husband: the red crane, situated between their apartment and the station, signals the source of the construction works that, once finished, will block the privileged views the couple's flat offered.
In the next shot, the camera is already inside the apartment. We soon realize that the racket is just the tip of the iceberg, triggering a dispute between the couple that ends up revealing a much deeper dissatisfaction. Odile is annoyed by not only the noises of the construction, but also the noises made by her husband when he eats, or clears his throat. She reproaches him for his conformism, his lack of ambition, his insensitivity, even his weight gain. Their quarrel is both hilarious and poignant. Its very dynamics—with Odile attacking insistently, and Jean-Pierre playing down each one of her complaints—give us the measure of the couple's opposing personalities, attitudes, and feelings toward their marriage.
Odile is fed up and needs a change; Jean-Pierre is fine as he is. She dreams of a trip, with the soothing voice that announces the flights at Orly airport; he just wants continuity, stability, calm. While Odile is active and energetic, Jean-Pierre is slow and passive—their rhythms constantly collide. The gestures and actions they perform (or not: domestic tasks, for instance, are solely Odile's issue), the behavior they have toward each other, allow us to feel (just as crucially as the dialogue) how their views and desires are also molded by the expectations associated with their gender roles. 
An internal montage structures the nine minutes of this sequence-shot that feels like the bad awakening after a restless night. The camera follows Jean-Pierre and Odile across different rooms of the apartment while they argue and perform their daily rituals. The shot begins in the kitchen, with the camera hovering over the characters's faces as they eat breakfast. Then we move to the bathroom, where the couple expresses adverse opinions about the value held by routine or mystery in a relationship. Afterwards, we track Odile to the bedroom for an escalation of tension that ends badly: they insult each other, Odile explodes and hits her husband. Finally, she leaves in anger and, as she descends in the elevator, we hear Jean-Pierre panicking, calling her name insistently.
 
During this sequence, the characters are always constricted in the frame, with barely room to breathe, invading and crashing into each other. The camera is stuck to their skin, trailing them closely. At one point, Odile and Jean-Pierre stay in different rooms, occupying the background and foreground of the image, as their argument goes on: there's not enough space to take any distance. The apartment feels suffocating and claustrophobic, and threatens to become even more so. When we reach the last part of the sequence, showing Odile's descent in the elevator, blackness intermittently fills the screen—and we understand her anxiety, her fear of entrapment, her horror at living in a house that feels like a tunnel. This last section—containing the disguised cut that inaugurates the next shot—functions as a physical and emotional passageway, taking us from the heated argument in the apartment to the liberating calm of Odile's walk outside.  
But the calm is just a temporary mirage, because this second sequence-shot—despite taking place in the open—will reveal itself even more oppressive than the previous one. With the camera at her back, Odile walks distracted, immersed in her thoughts. While crossing a road, a car almost hits her. The driver (Gilles Quéant) stops brusquely, gets out of the vehicle, and apologizes. After a brief exchange, Odile keeps marching. Turning her head toward this man who has started following her, she politely refuses his company. But the man insists and, suddenly, both are walking side by side, their heads together in the frame. The camera has moved to a frontal position. As their conversation unfolds, something strange happens: the man's speech begins to establish uncanny connections with the scene we've witnessed in the previous shot. His statements mirror the same ideas expressed by Odile just moments ago: he, too, sees the world as divided into two types of men; he, too, talks about the importance of mystery and the comforting voices at the airport. Odile is curious, even attracted to this stranger who asks her to join him on an improvised trip into the unknown.
As we experience the development of this sequence, contradictory feelings emerge. This chance encounter could indeed be a life-altering situation for Odile, and we wonder if she'll succumb to the proposal of this stranger who seems to be everything that her husband is not. However, despite Odile's willingness to engage with him, this man's manners, his insistence, his stalking, feel a bit off. The same desires expressed with conviction by Odile during her conjugal argument with Jean-Pierre are now met with caution and doubt: isn't it unfair to take advantage of others? Isn't mystery always tainted, destined to die? Odile's sudden wariness may reveal a dependence on marriage that is stronger than it first appeared; but this encounter also lays bare the complexities of desire, the fundamental split between fantasy and reality, the ambivalent experience of seeing your own imaginings take shape before your very eyes. In this shot, Rouch attests to both the exhilaration and the darkness of the dreamed chance encounter, with its opened possibilities and its unexpected turns. And, while doing so, he manages to capture the creepy filaments inherent in any romantic fantasy come true.  
And yet, we can't foretell the fatal denouement of this crossing of paths. Nothing prepares us for the terrible coercion suddenly forced onto Odile, when this stranger confesses that he is suicidal. They have reached the bridge crossing the railways of the Gare de l'Est. The man, with total naturalness, insinuates to Odile that he's betting his own life on her response. It all happens very fast. He gives Odile ten seconds to decide; she, perhaps not taking him seriously, admits that the offer is tempting, but she won’t accept it. "What a pity!" mutters the man, and starts running toward the bridge railings. The camera pans abruptly, inscribing Odile's anguished expression in a close-up as she repeatedly screams: "You’re crazy!" She's unable to move, but keeps trying to dissuade the man from jumping. The loud whistle of a train, resembling a shriek that contains Odile's whole horror and despair, takes up the entire sonic space, and propels the cut to the film's final shot.
Detached and tilted low, the camera is now on the opposite side of the bridge. Odile's small and distant figure is stuck to the bars; we can still hear her screams, the clattering of trains. Then the camera pans down, revealing the man's dead body lying on the tracks. This ending seems modeled on the finale of Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948), which presents a similar, albeit less compacted, combination of sharp cuts, blunt changes of perspective, expressive use of sound, and interplay between action and landscape. Gare du Nord concludes with a wild zoom-out that completely reconfigures the image, offering us a general vista of the neighborhood, resembling the one shown at the very start. Again, we can see Sacré Coeur in the background, far away. But now, what stands at the bottom of the frame is the bridge crossing the Gare de l'Est, with Odile transformed into a blurry, white spot.
Bookended by two disturbances that are inextricable from the spaces in which they take place, Gare du Nord opens and closes with shots that mirror each other, doubling and reframing the film's conflict. At the start, Odile's disgust with her neighborhood’s low status is maximized by the erection of a new building that threatens to darken her existence. At the end, she's left with the emotional imprint of an opposing movement: the stranger's suicidal plunge. From the urban remodeling that menaces a household's future stability, to an encounter that radically alters the perception of the city: the topography traced by Gare du Nord—where space, experience, and chance meet—is one of deep disruptions and traumatic transformations.

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