It would be a great mistake, sight unseen, to pigeonhole Ulrike Ottinger’s “Paris Calligrammes” as just another nostalgia-filled personal documentary about how amazing life was in Paris in the 1960s. Where others self-servingly wax lyrical about being in the nexus of the Left Bank’s Golden Age of hipness and activism, Ottinger takes us through this formative time of her life in a way that deftly balances past and present to paint a picture of a threshold era of both positives and negatives.
Recounted in the director’s own measured voiceover (the English version features Jenny Agutter while the French version has Fanny Ardant) and largely composed of found footage, film clips and home movies, the film reflects the director’s generosity of spirit as well as the period’s bubbling cauldron of syncretic and opposing movements. Promoted together with a handsome book tie-in, “Paris Calligrammes” should spark renewed interest in Ottinger’s work and is a natural for repertory houses.
“Calligram” signifies a text artistically arranged to form shapes that reflect the words’ meaning. Ottinger intends her title to resonate in multiple ways: first because Fritz Picard’s bookshop Librairie Calligrammes was her introduction to the city’s intellectual elite, but also because she wants her images and voiceover to act as a kind of reflexive mosaic that takes the viewer from the 1960s to the present and back again. At the start, she admits her task is impossible: How can she make a film from the perspective of a young artist when, 50 years later, she’s no longer that person? The documentary answers the question by recounting her youthful excitement while incorporating a more measured understanding of what she experienced and whom she met, narrated from the seasoned vantage point of the 21st century and the tumultuous times in between.
Like so many before her, she arrived in Paris at the age of 20, determined to become part of the city’s art scene. Picard’s shop in the Rue du Dragon was her natural destination given its reputation as the gathering place for the German-speaking intelligentsia, many still in self-imposed exile since the war years. It was there that she hobnobbed with people like Hans Richter, Raoul Hausmann and Tristan Tzara, towering figures in the art scene who (at least in Ottinger’s recounting) were open to including younger generations in their rarefied midst. From there, it was a two-minute walk to La Hune, the iconic bookshop of France’s literati; next to the latter is Café de Flore, where one could rub shoulders with Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rouch and Simone Signoret while looking amusedly out the windows to see Isadora Duncan’s eccentric brother Raymond walking the boulevard in his customary toga.
Who wouldn’t want to have been part of that world? But then Ottinger does the editorial equivalent of dragging a gramophone needle across a vinyl record by discussing the Oct. 17, 1961 massacre, when Parisian police killed a still undetermined number of demonstrators protesting the Algerian War, for which no one to this day has been prosecuted. She talks of Jacques Panijel’s suppressed film “Octobre à Paris,” of the brutal police chief Maurice Papon, of the legacy of racism and colonialism which can still be seen today in buildings and monuments whose inherent beauty may be acknowledged at the same time that the odious agenda behind their construction is examined.
Culture as activism — a largely dormant notion in today’s world — is exemplified by the 1966 staging of Jean Genet’s “The Screens” (“Les Paravents”), starring Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud; Ottinger includes interview footage of the playwright and actors, reminding audiences of a time when towering performers like these successfully defied entrenched conservatism in the name of justice.
“Paris Calligrammes” isn’t just about social movements. It’s also Ottinger as flâneuse, strolling the teeming byways of Les Halles at night, listening to Barbara in the nightclubs, attending screenings at the Cinémathèque Française, sitting in on lectures by Claude Lévi-Strauss. The documentary captures the zeitgeist as experienced by a young woman eager to soak up the cultural riches around her, which she then distilled through her own sensibility to create paintings reflecting the era’s upheavals. Though her style at the time was largely aligned with Pop Art, her influences were diverse, springing from the older generation of Dadaists and Surrealists whom she met at parties characterized by equal amounts of elegance and eccentricity, but also crucial to her artistic formation were the medieval tapestries at the Musée de Cluny and the hothouse phantasmagorias of Gustave Moreau.
When things heated up in May 1968, Ottinger had to seal the windows of her garret overlooking the Sorbonne in order to keep the tear gas out, and in the following year, she returned to Germany, perhaps sensing the end of an era. She continued to paint, but in 1972, she expanded her output to include films, viewing them as a way of synthesizing and reacting to the multitude of impressions she’d been imbibing. Those early works, like Dadaist allegorical pageants, responded to the state of the world through the influences not just of her peers but the paintings of Moreau, which appear in “Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press,” and the Goya prints she studied in the Print Room of the National Library, which resonate in “Freak Orlando.” Her Paris isn’t the empty, rose-tinted fantasy of Woody Allen: It’s vital and contradictory, stimulating for positive and negative reasons, and her willingness to explore her experiences from multiple angles, as advised by the philosopher Victor Segalen, is what makes this documentary so enriching.
Given just how much material she wrangles, it made sense to divide it all into 10 chapters plus an epilogue. Anette Fleming does excellent work editing the multitude of visual material in various formats, and the footage, whether licensed or newly shot, steers clear of the hackneyed and commonplace. Ottinger ends with Piaf singing “Non, je ne regrette rien,” which despite its ubiquity feels deeply satisfying; then she reminds us that Piaf dedicated the song to the pro-colonialist right-wing French Foreign Legion, and suddenly what seemed merely right becomes, in a word, perfect.