French director Claude Lelouch, perhaps best known to American audiences as the man behind the sentimental romantic hit (and Cannes award-winner) A Man and a Woman (1966), starring Anouk Aimee and Jean-Louis Trintignant, and the Oscar-nominated And Now, My Love (1975) is a filmmaker one might easily be forgiven for excluding from a short list of those who have committed memorable car chases to film. John Frankenheimer (Grand Prix, 1966, Ronin, 1998), William Friedkin (The French Connection, 1971, To Live and Die in L.A., 1985), Peter Yates (Bullitt, 1968), Walter Hill (The Driver, 1979), Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) are all names you might expect to be mentioned for such a roster. Hell, even the name of the late stunt coordinator/director H.B. Halicki, the man behind the 60-minute car chase in the original Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), would come up before that of Lelouch, a filmmaker who Leonard Maltin’s Film Encyclopedia describes as having “a fashion magazine approach to directing.” Trintignant’s character in A Man and a Woman was a race-car driver, but the film was not exactly Grand Prix, or even Winning (1969), for that matter, and that character’s career associations would seem as close to high-octane action as the director has ever come on screen.
In a feature, anyway.
In 1976, sometime after production wrapped on his film Si c’était a refaire (If I Had to Do It All Over Again), Lelouch, as the story goes, had a reel of film stock left over from his shoot-- approximately ten minutes worth—and an itch to scratch. He had recently purchased a Ferrari and had the idea to mount a gyroscopically stabilized camera low on the front end of the car and navigate a predetermined route through the streets of Paris, during the early morning hours when traffic and pedestrians would be relatively sparse, at a ludicrously high rate of speed. It’s at this point in the history of Lelouch’s nine-minute film C’était un Rendezvous (1976) where what is actually known about its production ceases and the rumors and mythology built up over the years since its release overwhelmingly take over. Lelouch screened the short film several times before one of his other movies (which leads one to wonder just how those primed to see one of the director’s gauzy coffee-table romances reacted to Lelouch’s reckless, testosterone-fueled side), but after objections began mounting, and after his arrest following one of the screenings, the film went underground. Lelouch, undoubtedly happy to perpetuate the mystery surrounding the circumstances of its filming, and the mystery surrounding its subsequent unavailability, was entirely silent on the subject, a stance he holds to this day. Car enthusiasts, though, kept the rumor mills buzzing throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and poor-quality pirated VHS tapes eventually started popping up on the Internet, adding to the resonance of the film’s outlaw mythology.
Was it actually Lelouch driving the car, as he claimed after the film’s release, or did he hire a Formula One driver to get behind the wheel? Was it done with the cooperation of the Parisian police, allowing Lelouch to choreograph the various obstacles and near-misses that the Ferrari encounters along the way? Or was it done, as Lelouch claims, using only strategically placed radio contacts at various stations along the route, come what traffic may? And did one of those radio contacts actually fail, putting the driver and other cars at far more risk than was even anticipated? Was Lelouch arrested after the film’s release? And was the car really going as fast as some enthusiasts have claimed, up to 140 mph?
The movie starts on a blank, dark screen, all silence but for the faint beating of a heart, and after a disclaimer stating that no special effects or film speed manipulations were used to make the car appear to be going faster than it actually was. The car emerges from the silence of a dark tunnel into the muted daylight of an early Paris morning, and as soon as it does Lelouch jumps us into what will make up the entirety of the rest of the film’s mesmerizing soundtrack—the high-gear revving of the Ferrari’s engine, alternating with the engine’s growls and shrieks as the driver rapidly gears down, and then back up again, and the sound of the tires squealing on the asphalt and cobblestone of those otherwise relatively quiet Parisian streets.
It’s on the first straightaway, leading to the Arc de Triomphe, when the driver first opens up the racer and builds up some terrific speed, that that disclaimer at the beginning seems, while certainly not untrue, then just a little bit disingenuous. Certainly no special effects, as filmmakers in 1976 understood and employed them, could have been utilized in a single-take situation such as this without being as apparent as a proverbial sore thumb. The same goes for undercranking the film-- exposing fewer frames per second than normal filming speed (24 frames per second) so that when projected at the normal rate the action of the film appears speeded up. This is a technique that anyone who has dabbled in Super 8 and 16mm filmmaking, as I did in my long-lost youth, is undoubtedly familiar with—my friends and I shot several car chases and employed this technique to make similar sequences of us barreling down the highway look as though we were going 80-90 mph, when in fact we were probably only going half that, or less. And undercranking is not just the province of amateur enthusiasts—it has been routinely employed in big-budget features for years. George Miller even used the technique (to much better effect than ours, to be sure) in the elaborate chase sequences featured in Mad Max and The Road Warrior. There’s only one problem with undercranking—it’s extremely detectable, even in The Road Warrior, and therefore distracting as hell. And it’s definitely nowhere in evidence in C’était un Rendezvous. But despite his otherwise sedate oeuvre, Lelouch definitely understands what Frankheimer, Miller and others also understood about the dynamics of filming road action. By mounting the camera relatively low on the front end of the vehicle, Lelouch is able to take advantage of the graphic weight given to the street as it zooms by underneath, and his stunt is helped along to an immeasurable degree by the sense of speed that the camera positioning is able to convey. My suspicion about C’ Etait un Rendezvous is that that camera may be making up, in visual terms, for the speeds of the car that may not always be living up to the mythology. On that first straightaway (and this may be as much a matter of psychologically settling into the spectacle before one’s eyes as the ability to suspend even the slightest sliver of disbelief), if attention is paid not only to the street, to which we are extremely close, but to the cars, both parked and those passed that are in motion, it may appear that Lelouch (or his driver) is not hurtling along as fast as all that (yet).
However true or untrue that suspicion, it hardly makes Lelouch’s film a con job, and given that the route of the film is easily tracked (and, in fact, has been mapped) and that we know how much time it takes to run it, it wouldn’t be too difficult for a mathematically inclined viewer (sorry, but that’s not me) to calculate the average rate of speed that would be necessary to negotiate the course we see on the film.
The other mysteries surrounding the film are less easily and tangibly confirmed or denied. A writer at Neon Rebel.com who reviewed the film upon its DVD release believes that Lelouch must have been the driver: “Lelouch…was most likely doing the driving himself, as no Formula One driver would commit so many driving errors.” Unfortunately, the writer chooses not to elaborate upon those errors, for the benefit of the less Formula One-inclined of us. But we don’t just have to take him on his word—it’s apparent that several times along the way the driver hesitates, for reasons having to do with what little street activity there is going on, when choosing which narrow, cobblestone street to go barreling down, and often his preferred route is cut off by the unexpected presence of a delivery truck angled sideways in the road or a parked taxicab partially blocking the street. This feeling of “improvisation,” that the planned route might have undergone some last-second mid-shoot revamping, adds to the edge and the suspense of what may or may not be coming when the car shoots off a street and into a crowded traffic circle or around a darkened corner, and it may be evidence in favor of the less-experienced-Lelouch-as-driver theory. But there are also several rumors that the director had indeed hired a driver to take his car through its paces. And even if one buys the professional driver story, then it’s a matter of deciding which driver was responsible—one legend has the car being driven by Formula One professional Jean-Pierre Beltoise (and in a Matra Le Mans prototype, not the Ferrari), another places driver Jacques Lafitte behind the wheel (of the Ferrari), and still another suggests that a driver of Finnish descent was the perpetrator of the stunt. Whoever actually did the driving, Lelouch, either by an impulse of publicity, protection of the driver, or a sense of personal responsibility for an idea that he generated, always claimed it was he behind the wheel, and it certainly was he who was found responsible by authorities, who had him arrested for reckless driving, briefly held in custody and stopped all further public screenings of the film.
As for the matter of whether Lelouch had the approval of the Parisian police, well, it seems clear by their rather disapproving stance when the film was screened, and their disposition to hold him legally responsible for several counts of reckless endangerment, that they probably did not cooperate by blocking traffic and ensuring the safety of the pedestrians and other drivers who the Ferrari happened upon during its fierce journey. According to a review of the film from the November 2003 issue of Automobile magazine:
“City officials rejected Lelouch’s application to close the necessary streets. Undaunted, he decided to do it without permission and take his chances, reducing the risks by shooting at 5:30 on a morning in August, the month when almost all of Paris shuts down for vacation. The most dangerous part of the route would be the ticket-window area at the Louvre, where there was zero visibility at the courtyard’s exit onto the Rue de Rivoli. An assistant, Elie Chouraqui, stood watch over the exit with a walkie-talkie. The shoot went off as planned. However, with no signal from Chouraqui as he approached the exit of the Louvre’s courtyard, Lelouch floored it and roared through the gates. After the rendezvous, Lelouch headed back to collect Chouraqui and found him fiddling with the walkie-talkie. “What’s up?” Lelouch asked. “It’s this piece of crap!” replied the assistant, pointing to the walkie-talkie. “It broke down at the start of the take!”
The reviewer in Automobile magazine fails to cite his source for this story, although a good guess would be Lelouch himself, perhaps in one of those conversations held in the wake of the movie’s uproarious and outraged reception. But it’s almost immaterial as to what the source is, because perpetuating the mysteries surrounding the film, a source of immense amusement, apparently, for Lelouch himself, and certainly for the enthusiasts who did so throughout the early days of video, before the DVD age, are as much a part of its appeal as the white-knuckle experience of the film itself.
And the visceral power of that experience, whatever one believes to be true or untrue about the film and its genesis, remains undiluted. I’ve screened it for myself and others several times over the past week and each time I feel my own suspicions perhaps not melting away, but at least becoming secondary to the sickening gut rush of hurtling out of two-way traffic and into the less densely populated, but still populated, courtyard surrounding the Arc de Triomphe; the almost involuntary impulse to hit imaginary brakes when the car comes barreling up onto much slower cars, unlucky pigeons, and the occasional genuinely startled pedestrian; or the claustrophobia mingled with fear and excitement generated by hurtling down tight cobblestone streets where every corner is blind, dark and very dangerous. But is that giving way to sensation necessarily a good thing? There are those for whom the morality of a movie that puts real people in real danger is a daunting question, overwhelming all others, and that’s as it should be. This movie’s mythology would be far different if the failure of that walkie-talkie had precipitated a violent crash or the running-down of an old lady carrying home the morning’s groceries—a jolt of pure adrenaline becomes snuff death for the characters in J.G. Ballard book or a David Cronenberg film. And there are those for whom the movie is adrenaline and nothing more—the fact that laws and lives were possibly flaunted in order to get that action on the screen just adds another layer of goose bumps as they uncontrollably crop up amidst the comfort and safety of the thrill-seeker’s home theater. Perhaps Werner Herzog, in the fevered days of Fitzcarraldo, could have mounted a defense of Lelouch’s methodology, if there was an accompanying argument to be made about the resulting artistic achievement borne of the risk. For me, as undeniably gut-wrenching and exciting as C’était un Rendezvous is, it is, ultimately, not worth the verisimilitude, the knowledge that it is, for all intents and purposes, real. I’m content with the artistic achievements of the stunt coordinators, technicians and directors who have, through hard work and untold hours of preparation, created awe-inspiring stunt sequences in films like Ronin, The Italian Job, The Road Warrior, Bullitt and countless others, without either the loss of life or the indefensible impulse to flirt with the possibility of such a loss. Those films fold stunt sequences into larger works of art, displaying comic and dramatic trajectory to enhance and inform the whole. Lelouch’s C’était un Rendezvous, so unlike anything else he ever made, and on some levels perhaps better, or at least more alive, than anything else he ever made, is an amazing stunt. Unfortunately, given what was at stake, that’s all it is.
Thanks to Jonas Sjogren, who brought Lelouch's movie to my attention, and who helped immensely with the research for this article, and to Andrew Blackwood for using a rental on his NicheFlix subscription so that I could see it for myself.