German artist and filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger, whose work is not as well distributed in the United States as it should be, is generally not known for his sentimentality. Her lengthy research films are not quite costumed, visionary allegories of radical queer feminism. Representative titles include “Madame X: An Absolute Ruler” (1982), “The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press” (1984) and “Joan of Arc of Mongolia” (1992). We cannot fault him for being at least a little melancholy in his new “Paris Calligrammes”, an autobiographical documentary. This is Paris, after all – his Paris, first known in the early 1960s.
After the start of the film with images shot by Ottinger in today’s Paris, we are transported back in time, both auditory and visual: notably by the singers Juliette Gréco and Jacques Dutronc, and a clip of the ‘immortal 1945 by Marcel Carné “The Children of Paradise. But “Paris Calligrammes” constantly mixes what is familiar to the Francophile with a lot of what is not. The film takes its title from a bookstore Ottinger frequented in his youth. She had been enchanted by the French culture that was growing in occupied Germany and had sought a connection at home once she landed in the City of Light to study. The Calligrammes bookstore, run by German Fritz Picard, served German expatriates. It was a place where, according to Ottinger, “the Dadaists met the Situationists.” It has become a formative aesthetic house for the young artist.
One of the highlights of the film is Ottinger’s account of a reading at the store by Walter Mehling. The filmmaker has what appears to be a torrent of anecdotes and accompanying ideas to convey, but the film never feels rushed. She created three different narratives, those in French and English read by comedians Fanny Ardant and Jenny Agutter, and one in German, read by Ottinger herself. This American version features the Agutter narration. This reading is as crucial in conveying the vibe of Ottinger’s story as the quiet pace of the film.
We see Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Signoret and Nico, but also now obscure characters including Raymond Duncan, the eccentric brother of the dancer Isadora Duncan, who roamed the streets of Paris in a toga and philosopher at the famous café Les Two Magots. . Ottinger’s account of the riot-provoking Paris premiere in the 1960s of Jean Genet’s play “The Screens” highlights how the use of costume and make-up production influenced the aesthetics of the future film from Ottinger.
Ottinger also remembers alienation: his account of a strike in May 1968 is far from utopian. And she is pointed out by remembering how when activist Daniel Cohn-Bendit was agitating in Paris, it was not only the right that fired him with the categorization “a German Jew”.
When she finishes the film by putting Edith Piaf’s “No, Je Ne Regrette Rien” on the soundtrack, one can think that Ottinger has finally succumbed to the sentimentality that she has mostly mastered. But wait. Much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, “Paris Calligrams” has a mid-credits stinger – this one about Piaf’s dedication to song.
Unclassified. In English, German and French, with subtitles. Duration: 2 hours 9 minutes. Look through the virtual cinema of the Film Forum.