Paris Calligrammes

In 1962, German artist Ulrike Ottinger moved to Paris. She was born in wartime Konstanz and grew up when the city was still being occupied by French troops, so the first films she saw were French. When she first saw a film in German, she said “this isn’t real”.

This film shows 1960s Paris through her eyes using a variety of media. Pathe-type news footage shows black and white reports of troops from the French colonies in a military parade, of Vietnamese protestors chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” and of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir selling revolutionary newspapers as the police escort them away.

We make a visit to the Museum of Immigration, first looking at the wall carvings that betray its past as the venue of the Colonial Exposition in 1931. It quickly shifted to documenting the colonisers not colonialism, and when I visited last year, it was running an exhibition about Rock Against Racism.

We are also shown travelogue-like shots of olde Paris, also in black-and white. There’s the Louvre, here’s the Eiffel Tower, here’s the Left Bank, where Ottinger had an artist’s garret, within tear gar sniffing distance of the Sorbonne (we are told that when it all kicked off in May 1968, she had to keep her windows closed).

Occasionally the film footage turns to colour and show present day scenes, of tourists taking selfies in front of the Eiffel Tower, or of people of both sexes of African descent in the middle of 12 hour plaiting marathons in local hairdressers. It is not entirely clear what this has to do with the other scenes that we are being shown.

And then there’s the artists – photos of ageing Marc Chagall and Georges Braque taken by Ottinger’s friends and contemporaries, film posters for Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete or Lous Malle’s Au Revoir des Enfants, Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa and Méliès’s film “Trip to the Moon” (the one “borrowed” by the Smashing Pumpkins when they made a stab at artistic credibility).

If all this seems like a lot (and I haven’t come close to dropping half of the names), you’re not wrong. The film is a breathtaking list of events and places that have a significant relevance to Ottinger. It also meanders without a clear sense of direction. Too often we lose the context of what we are seeing and why it is relevant.

So, we are left to tick off another list item and move on. We are rarely told either why this particular thing is important to Ottinger, nor its relevance in a wider context. Which would be fine if we were just being shown the Eiffel Tower, but a lot of stuff that we see is much more niche.

Added to this, there is a deficit which lies more in me than in the film. Cards on table, I wasn’t planning on coming, but a sold out film in the cinema round the corner had me turning up to see something which had shown in the Berlinale, but meant nothing significant to me. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Ulrike Ottinger before this evening (and yes, I know that’s my problem).

This means for most of the time I was treading water a bit. Towards the end, I get on firmer ground, when we are shown footage of Les Évenements of 1968, and Dany Cohn Bendit being denounced as a “German Jew”. Ottinger bemoans this double insult, and we see posters produced by students saying “we are all German Jews”. She also explains how the movement was weakened by dogmatic Stalinism and superficial Maoism.

This could lead to something. Ottinger seems to be on the side of the students, and may be able to offer a suggestion of how things could have been different, but no, that’s your lot. There was a meeting in a sympathetic theatre where the students were rude to the theatre owners who were friends of Ottinger. After that, he gave up hope.

It is perhaps noticeable that although we are shown how the CRS batoned protestors off the streets, Ottinger was not a participant and viewed it all through her studio window. In 1969, she left Paris without ever having had any obvious connection to the movement.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is Ottinger’s art, which crops up from time to time. When she moved to Paris, she’d been dabbling with Dadaism but fell into Pop Art in a big way. We see some of her paintings from the time – big, bright things, which demand that we engage with them.

Later on, she would make “challenging” films, which she says were inspired by her Parisian days. We see clips – all men dressed as nuns carrying birds with the face of a human baby. It all looks as if it could be interesting, but again we are not given much context, and unless you know the rest of the film, your main reaction is bewilderment.

I’ve marked this film as “So So”, which is probably unfair. The last thing it is is average. But it contains too many interesting snippets to be a bad film, but not enough that’s tangible to make me want to recommend it. The Berlinale critics loved it of course. Is there any more damning judgment?

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