Directed by Louis Malle
For Place de la Republique, Louis Malle turned the camera on the people in the street, one street in particular. He spent ten days in Paris interviewing people who walked by, like catching fish in a net. Some people ignored him and kept on walking, others volunteered to speak with him, and some more he had to convince to be a part of the story.
Malle is kind of aggressive with his camera. He walks up to people, often in the shot himself, and starts asking them questions without any kind of introduction. He never hides the camera, however, even though some people don’t notice it right away. Malle’s style is one of, let’s say, heightened realism. He seeks to catch them off guard and catch them at their most vulnerable, before they have time to put their guard up. In some cases he refers to the camera specifically, as if introducing it as a variable in a science experiment, hoping the camera might change their performance.
The idea behind any documentary is to capture real life, not a performance like in a narrative film, but Malle seems interested in the performances, the roles people play. He hardly dictates the conversation, let alone where the entire documentary is headed. Instead he lets the person he’s interviewing decide what to talk about, and he only jumps in when they need something to keep them talking. One woman, whom he has playfully pestered a handful of times, finally gives in and starts to talking to him. This is well into the film, after we have watched a dozen people talk to the camera, the same people she has seen walk by and, presumably, speak with Malle as she works in a booth right on the street. This woman has a lot to say, as many of the interviewees seem to. Her theory is that no one out here is happy, but she is. In a way, you might guess from what she says, everyone on the street is performing a character, one who, in her words, is only pretending to be happy. She tells Malle that they are only willing to tell their life story on camera because they’re so unhappy. Her theory, I suppose, is that these people want their self-worth reflected back to them, and Malle offers it.
Having a camera shoved in your face and questions thrown your way is bound to make you puff our your chest a little. Even if you don’t intend to, you might start playing a character you can’t control. Some of the people are surprisingly honest. Some less so.
One man opens up about his unemployment and a need to get a job. He asks Malle if he or anyone he knows needs an extra pair of hands. When Malle suggests they get a drink, the only break from the street in the film, the man begins to open up more about his marriage. Later, on an entirely new day, the man suddenly shuts up, as if he realized he may have said too much.
The characters, if you want to call them that and I do, in this film are very open. They talk about pensions, the amount of money you need to survive in Paris, their deceased spouses (a lot of elderly folk in the area), searching for work, and money again. They might as well be in a confessional in some instances.
Most of the characters are men, most are white, and most are middle-aged or elderly. One woman lost her husband ten years before, one less than a year before, and one has a husband who was sick at the time of filming. Their honesty might be seen as a sign of how real they are, but I think even extreme honesty is itself a kind of performance, like you are playing into a certain narrative or emotion. When a certain topic comes up, whether it’s death or military experience or job hunting, that becomes the focus of the entire conversation. Malle follows up with more questions, always trying to go deeper. So instead of a wide breadth of conversation, to show the whole character, we instead dive into one aspect of one person. If that first inclination is for them to speak about a sadness in their life, even if they discuss it with some detachment, that is the thread that Malle will tug on.
Thus, in this theory of conversation, the first instinct, the first topic of discussion, is a performance, something that rings true for one part of a person, and then they make it the whole thing, even if they don’t mean to. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but I think a performance is often based in reality, but extrapolated to make a bigger point. When one elderly, almost blind woman, discusses how she has no family left, that becomes all that she is to us, and her character now represents more than herself, even if the woman in this moment isn’t even all of herself.
So the people on camera give into certain questions and begin to loosen up and talk about who they are in this moment. The whole documentary doesn’t claim to try to understand everyone, but it’s a compilation of the complex emotions and people who pass by you in the street everyday.
There is one woman who hands out pamphlets about Jesus. She talks about an incident in which, while handing out fliers, someone shoved a kid into her, and she says she wasn’t hurt. Malle asks about the kid, and at first she doesn’t understand. He asks if the kid was hurt, and she says, “he was shoved into me… I don’t know, I tripped over him,” before adding, “the difficulties and the cruelty can’t touch me.” She’s one of the more unaware characters in the film.
Another woman, a young woman, shies away from the camera on multiple occasions, but eventually Malle makes her comfortable with the camera, allowing her to play with it, to look through the viewfinder. He puts her so at ease that before we know it, she is the one conducting the interview with strangers, asking them her own set of questions. And she is somehow even more direct than Malle. She walks up to one girl, likely with her guard down because she’s being approached by another young woman and not an older man like Malle (who was shoed away in one moment by a woman who assumed him to be hitting on her), and asks the woman about her dating preferences. The woman seems very uncomfortable when asked if she would date another woman. Next the young interviewer asks an older man about his sex life, and you can seem the man blush but also smile at what might be seen as a come on by an attractive younger woman. Then he sees the camera, and when the interviewer asks him to walk with her, he suggests they get rid of the camera if she means it. She doesn’t, of course.
Despite the camera allowing people to play up in the moment and perform something within themselves, the film ends with an old lady talking about her experience sneaking across the border during World War II. She plays her role very well, so well in fact that Louis Malle himself may have noticed. As she tells this gripping, tense story, he suddenly interrupts her and asks if she realizes she’s being filmed. The woman barely responds to him, choosing instead to continue on with the story. All the while a fairly substantial crowd has gathered, drawn more likely to the film crew than to the woman, but they watch her monologue all the same.
In this moment, maybe she transcended the performance. Or maybe I have no idea what I’m saying anymore. But the majority of the documentary is about people being more willing to open up probably because of the camera. It’s like a light attracting summertime bugs. The film crew represents something, maybe fame, maybe someone willing to confirm your existence. And yet it ends with this lady who couldn’t care less. By the end of her story she walks away from Malle and his small filmmaking team, and they literally run to keep up with her as she bikes off down the street.
Even as Malle, his camera guy and his sound operator stood out in the street like sore thumbs, they sought to blend in, to capture people who would talk to Malle and just happen to be caught on camera. He often had to refer specifically to the camera, as if to make the subject of the interview comfortable with it as quickly as possible, so that they could even more quickly learn to ignore it. By the end it worked.