Paris Calligrammes

(Ulrike Ottinger, Germany/France, 2019)


Ulrike Ottinger (born 1942) is far less known internationally than other figureheads of the New German Cinema that emerged at the end of the 1960s, such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Margarethe von Trotta. No doubt this was because, for a long time, Ottinger occupied the movement’s proudly experimental wing, alongside difficult-to-assimilate luminaries like Werner Schroeter.


Her major films, including Ticket of No Return (1979), are extraordinary mixes of Pop Art visuals, theatrical tableaux, queer feminism and baroque, aesthetic excess on every level of cinematic style. But Ottinger, now approaching 80, has also pursued a line of ethnographic or anthropological filmmaking (such as her 1992, 8-hour Taiga), rendered in a very personal style.


We discover the origin of almost all these elements in her captivating, autobiographical essay Paris Calligrammes.


Ottinger arrived in Paris in 1962, at the age of 20, and left in 1969. A certain aura of French culture had already infused her childhood, growing up in the French-occupied town of Konstanz in post-war Germany – she saw so many French films that she was shocked to discover, one day, that there were also movies in which people spoke German! As a young adult and budding artist, Ottinger embraced much that was new and radical in the Parisian scene.


Yet – and this is a crucial keynote in her testament – she also kept close ties with members of an older crowd, many of them émigrés or visitors who frequented a special bookshop named (after a poetry book by Apollinaire) Calligrammes. This gave her a unique, historically informed perspective on the passing fads and fashions in all fields, including that of politics.


As a 130-minute documentary, this is fairly straightforward stuff – archival footage, voice-over narration, some musical interludes. We revisit the cinemas, museums and (in an eloquent highlight) the auction houses that Ottinger frequented in her youth.


But the clips from movies (including Les Enfants du Paradis, 1945) are frequently used in an imaginative, inventive way. And the glimpses of celebrities including polymath Jean Cocteau, cinema historian Lotte Eisner, filmmaker Jean Rouch and photographer Ré Soupault – and/or the traces they left behind – are the priceless bounty of what must have been an extraordinary effort of research by Ottinger and her team.


Anyone who is even half a Francophile will swoon at Paris Calligrammes. But there is also a stern, cautionary note, especially in the closing stages: don’t expect the usual, romantic paean to good old “May 68” here – an uprising that was not kind to the cultural elders (such as actor Jean-Louis Barrault from Les Enfants du Paradis) revered by Ottinger.


And don’t skip out before a final, on-screen title deftly puts the nostalgia of hearing Edith Piaf’s popular anthem “Non, je ne regrette rien” into a proper, historic perspective. Ouch!

© Adrian Martin August 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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