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SFC 10 (2) pp. 95109 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in French Cinema
Volume 10 Number 2
2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/sfc.10.2.95_1
Brigitte Bardot
Jeanne Moreau
Audrey Tautou
Rachida Brakni
Parisian female stars
feminine journeys
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Female bodies in Paris:
iconic urban femininity
and Parisian journeys
The link between French female stars and Paris is so strong that they have become an
integral and highly visible part of the urban screenscape. I examine Une Parisienne
(Boisrond, 1957), Ascenseur pour lchafaud (Malle, 1957), Le Fabuleux
destin dAmlie Poulain (Jeunet, 2001) and Chaos (Serreau, 2001) to illustrate
how female protagonists not only embody iconic types of Parisian femininity, but
also trace inner journeys through the cityscape in both auteur and popular films.
In my analysis, I shift the discussion from the figure of the flneuse, while looking
at other spatial practices that enable projections of subjectivities in the city space,
including feminine cartographies, haptic travels that position female spectators as
voyageuses and spectatorial practices related to star images. I argue that Parisian
female stars and vedettes as both objects of consumption and subjective protago-
nists map the city of Paris according to their inner structure, in both objectified and
personal terms, as the collusion of these two categories on-screen and in off-screen
media texts enables them to circulate desire for the city as feminine urban icons.
French female stars enjoy a privileged connection to the city of Paris. Shots
of Jeanne Moreau on the Champs Elyses at night, Catherine Deneuve in
the Place Vendme, Juliette Binoche on the Pont-Neuf and Audrey Tautou
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strolling in Montmartre illustrate how star images and Parisian screenscapes
are constitutive of each other. Films and media texts conflate the city and its
women, in particular the condensed version of iconic femininity incarnated by
the movie star or the vedette. Due to the concentration of the contemporary
cinematic industry in the Parisian metropolitan area, the capital city is the
preferred setting for most French movies. Therefore, numerous actresses as
both labour and commodities are, or necessarily become, Parisian. Their on-
and off-screen stories are tightly woven into the scenery to the point that they
become icons of the city, in a type of urban femininity intimately connected to
the filmic metropolis.
In this article, I investigate the interaction between the screened city of
Paris and its actresses in four movies that inexorably link their protagonists to
the Parisian cityscape. The stars Brigitte Bardot in Une Parisienne/La Parisienne
(Michel Boisrond, 1957), Jeanne Moreau in Ascenseur pour lchafaud/Lift to
the Scaffold (Louis Malle, 1957), Audrey Tautou in Le Fabuleux destin dAmlie
Poulain/Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) and the vedette Rachida Brakni in
Chaos (Coline Serreau, 2001) acquire an element of their persona that posi-
tions them as memorable Parisian female icons. These four films equally
exemplify on-screen types of Parisian femininity and their correspond-
ing spatial practices. Brigitte Bardots amorous chases in the city showcase
her sexualized Parisian persona, while Jeanne Moreaus femme fatale urban
dynamism is conveyed in a nocturnal drift in the city of lights. Whereas the
gamine Amlie plots the Parisian screenscape as her playground, the beurette
incarnated by Brakni struggles to find a place in the city. Finally, the movies
bring into the spotlight dichotomies that traverse critical discourses in French
contemporary cinema from 1957 to 2001. In a historical context preoccupied
with city and feminine modernity, Boisronds and Malles films exemplify the
divide between popular and art cinema, and bring to the forefront questions
of corresponding objectifying and subjective projections, a clichd Paris for the
sexualized Bardot and an intimate city for the subjective Moreau. Reflecting on
Frenchness in 2001, Jeunets and Serreaus works problematize and refuse the
easy division between auteur and mainstream cinema through an integrative
approach directed at a broad audience. Jeunet redefines Paris in its most iconic
traits screening the famous French gamine, while Serreau films the contem-
porary Parisian landscape, introducing into the city a new feminine traveller,
the beurette. With the auteur/popular split running through them, both movies
have attracted passionate critical discussion about stereotyped and authentic
Parisian screenscapes and female bodies, both non-ethnic and ethnic. My aim
is to read beyond these polarized separations and address the ways in which
female stars and vedettes negotiate Parisian space in both objective and sub-
jective terms, assert their place(s) in the city, and create on- and off-screen
maps that reflect their own inner dual structure, thereby constructing Paris
both as subjective space and cultural merchandise.
The pure visual delight of Paris parallels the pleasure of star gazing.
Close-ups of iconic Parisian monuments are attached to womens images,
sometimes literally, with a tricolour ribbon as in Jean-Paul Goudes iconic
advertisement for Galeries Lafayette in which his muse wears a miniature
of the Eiffel Tower on her head. Through a dual metonymical relationship,
the city and the female star can stand in one for one another. Circulating on
this twofold path, iconic signifiers shift from women to the city and back.
Alongside sophisticated modernity, cultural heritage and aesthetic beauty,
urban mobility is one essential quality that Parisian women share with their
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city, which enables them to move actively through space and create their
own itineraries.
Nevertheless, the couple woman-city has traditionally been troublesome,
and journeys from the street asphalt to the motion picture screen echo these dif-
ficulties. The omnipresence of idealized feminine representations in the Parisian
city space raises numerous suspicions of real exclusion and blatant objectifica-
tion. Notably, Simone de Beauvoir remarks that despite the ubiquitous female
sculptures in Paris, there are only ten statues of real women: Mme de Sgur,
George Sand, Sarah Bernhardt, Mme Boucicaut, the Baroness Hirsh, Maria
Deraismes, Rosa Bonheur and three of Jeanne dArc (de Beauvoir 1949: 221). In
a similar line of thought, Susan Hayward reads the imagined cinematographic
metropolis, formulating a compelling argument that Paris is misrecognized
as a woman, seeing that the fetishization of the female city body enables the
reassertion of masculine identity and control, as well as the exclusion of other
unwanted bodies from the urban space. Likewise, Parisian women are mainly
typified in roles of excessive and deviant femininity, Hayward argues, with the
exception of a few female flneur films that reinscribe feminine subjectivity in
the Parisian cityscape (Hayward 2000: 2627). The flneuse is certainly a cru-
cial character in reading the interaction between women and Parisian scenery;
however, other spatial practices, including subjective vision, are enabled by the
mobility obtained through the citywoman metonymy. This urban dynamism
allows female protagonists to find diverse ways of projecting their subjectivities
on filmic landscapes, through mapping identity and emotional journeys in the
city, as well as through diverse walking practices, such as amorous chases, sen-
timental wanderings, love cartographies and identity quests.
In order to perform a complex reading of these often contradictory sig-
nifying levels, I turn to several theoretical frameworks that offer alternative
critical roadmaps to look at the different ways in which the relation between
women and Parisian space can be read other than through the voyeuristic and
fetishization looking glass. To analyse mapping practices, I use Tom Conleys
lens of cartography in cinema. Since both cartography and cinema share the
same projective spatial mechanisms, Conley suggests that a map in a movie
exposes the strategies at work in constructing cinematic space, and opens up
a site of productive critical inquiry, raising questions about identity, subjectivity,
location and viewer position. Therefore, filmic maps represent points of depar-
ture for transverse readings that can be used to illuminate how feminine
protagonists act in relation to maps and plan their journeys in the Parisian
screenscape (Conley 2007: 208). To analyse particular feminine spatial prac-
tices, I turn to Giuliana Brunos Atlas of Emotions and its theoretical shift from
the optic to the haptic, from objectifying gaze to travelling emotion. Central to
Brunos atlas is Madeleine de Scudrys Carte du pays de Tendre, a map con-
ceived for her novel Cllie (1654), which illustrates the essential link between
motion and emotion. This feminine cartography includes intimacy and affects
and situates cinema on the map of the emotional road atlas (Bruno 2002: 224).
By integrating the haptic coordinate, the cinematic experience becomes a trav-
elling practice that makes room for an active spectatrix-voyageuse position
to replace the filmic voyeur (Bruno 2002: 157). Finally, I look at how vari-
ous media texts discussing female performers and the city of Paris interact
with their on-screen itineraries. Within these analytical frames of reference, I
start with two filmic journeys in which the star images of Brigitte Bardot and
Jeanne Moreau are instrumental in illustrating both the objectification of the
Parisian star and cityscape, and the diverse subjective strategies at work.
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Figure 1: The poster for Une Parisienne ( Swim Ink 2, LLC/CORBIS).
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Following Et Dieu cra la femme/ And God Created Woman (Roger Vadim,
1956), which established her as a full-fledged star, Brigitte Bardot was cast in Une
Parisienne. The film poster depicts Bardot wearing a revealing nightgown while
literally sitting on a Parisian map. In this sexually charged image, she copies a
familiar pin-up posture; however, unlike her American counterpart who smiles
invitingly, Bardot is pouting, an irreverent trait that has become one of her trade-
marks. The see-through negligee is an open invitation to the spectator to look at
Bardots body, and, through juxtaposition, at the Parisian map that surrounds it.
The proximity of flesh and stone points to the identical imaginary mechanisms
that project both the female star body and the Parisian landscape. The movie
poster marks a significant departure from Turgots famous 1739 Parisian map
and its attempts at urban control or the 1903 New Monumental Paris: Practical
Itinerary for the Foreigner in Paris with its iconic monuments plotted on the map.
Quite to the contrary, the architectural lines reproduce the curves of Bardots body
in a protective embrace, as cartographic accuracy is sacrificed at the expense of
iconicity. In an imagined geography, the map, dotted with numerous French
flags, brings together lively cobblestone streets, the tumultuous Moulin Rouge,
the Seine with its gracious bridges and the Sacr-Coeur rising against the hori-
zon. The landmarks are represented from multiple and incongruous perspectives,
showing each monument on the map from the best angle. The message is clearly
one of photogenic quality that both star and city possess, as the adulation of
Bardots Parisian body seems to leak into the cityscape and move its faades.
In stark contrast to the film poster, the opening sequence of Une Parisienne
screens Bardot driving in a red convertible on the Champs Elyses, thus illustrat-
ing the contradictory ways in which the female star body inhabits and relates to
urban space. Instead of an iconic establishing shot, the perspective of a moving
car shows the experience of the cityscape as continuous movement and vibrant
traffic. Following the vehicle without interruption, this fluid long take celebrates
the freedom of unrestricted mobility, while the camera dollies playfully in and out
on Bardot. To mark precisely the direction change, the first cut occurs when the
convertible turns on Avenue Winston Churchill. Shifting the attention from car
to scenery, a pan immediately shows Les Invalides, another imposing Parisian
landmark. A subsequent dissolve marks the elliptical temporality in strict con-
cordance with an accurate geography as Bardot is shown driving on the rue de
Varenne and entering at high speed the inner courtyard of the Htel Matignon.
The scat-jazz tune accompanying the opening sequence feeds into the moder-
nity of the cityscape, and is heard again twice in the love-making scenes in the
movie, drawing a parallel between fulfilled female sexuality and independence of
movement in urban space. From the beginning, mobility and modernity are thus
established coordinates that the stars image shares with the city of Paris.
Bardot stars as Brigitte Laurier, the daughter of the French Prime Minister,
terribly spoiled and single-minded in her amorous chase of Michel Legrand
(Henri Vidal), a Don Juan working for the Premier. A suite of quid pro quos
serve as the narrative engine of the movie, one of them leading to the couples
marriage imposed by the Prime Minister himself to save his daughters repu-
tation. Freshly arrived from her honeymoon, Brigitte is busy, yet again, this
time in devising strategies to ruin her husbands prolific adulterous life and to
keep him faithful to her. At the level of the narrative, Bardots mobility is dif-
fused through her active desire. Simone de Beauvoir has already remarked on
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Bardots modern dynamic and non-apologetic sexuality: Bardot does not cast
spells, she is on the go [] In the game of love, she is as much a hunter as
she is a prey. The male is an object to her, just as she is to him (de Beauvoir
1960: 20). Accordingly, scenes displaying Bardots body in motion accumulate,
as her character dances uninhibitedly, hides in bathtubs, rolls in bed sheets, runs
after and from Michel, draped in towels and dressed in provocative clothes.
The preoccupation with Frances heritage and modernization is made
equally explicit by the fictive historical background of the story, the state visit
of a royal couple to a France in the midst of European integration. A child of
her time, Bardots star persona is attuned to this duality between the old and
the new, reconciling traditional values with a modern feminine type in the
1950s, as Ginette Vincendeau convincingly argues (Vincendeau 2000: 8284).
The Parisian screenscape resonates with the main coordinates of Bardots star
image, bringing together not only modern urban traffic on the Champs Elyses
and technologically advanced airports and train stations, but also the timeless
picturesque banks of the Seine, viewed from the Pont de la Concorde, and
panoramic Parisian vistas dominated by the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower.
As the name equivalence between actress and character reveals, the movie is
equally about Bardot as a film star, and it ends specifically on this point. To keep
her husband busy with jealousy, Brigitte elopes to Nice with the royal guest Prince
Charles, only to rediscover her love for her husband. However, when confronted
by Michel, the heroine has to lie about her whereabouts, since he does not want
to believe the truth. In this episode, a close-up of her fingers crossed makes the
viewer an accomplice to Brigittes parallel narrative. In addition, the movie ends
with the protagonists direct look at the camera. In this final scene, Brigittes
wink to the spectator is likewise to be read in relation to Bardots extra-cinematic
image, as she was at the time the object of a press scandal due to her extra-mar-
ital affair with Jean-Louis Trintignant. Brigittes faithfulness and monogamy in
the films plot are therefore complicated by the frantic media coverage of Bardots
scandalous affair. On-screen, her newly married character moves into the highly
modern apartment of her husband, while off-screen Bardot had just left Roger
Vadim to move in with her new lover on Avenue Paul Doumer. In Les Annes
Bardot, one of the numerous books celebrating the star, Henry-Jean Servat maps
Bardots residences in Paris situated exclusively in the sixteenth arrondissement,
and plots them in reference to two close iconic landmarks, the Arc de Triomphe
and the Eiffel Tower, equally present in the movie (Servat 1996: 83). As even
on- and off-screen maps coincide, this transparency between the real-life cartog-
raphy of Bardot-as-star and the film scenery of Brigitte-as-character alludes, yet
again, to the complex tensions in Bardots ambiguous figure at the crossroads of
dynamic modernity and static tradition.
Released in the same year as Une Parisienne, Louis Malles feature debut
Ascenseur pour lchafaud screens a different facet of the Champs Elyses neigh-
bourhood, drawing on the urban imaginary of film noir. The movie opens with
a conversation between two lovers, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien
Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). The first map appears in Juliens office, lurking
behind him in two identical shots that flank a close-up of Florence in which she
verbally plots a path to freedom. Once the conversation ends, a pan in Juliens
office reveals a map of Europe and one of Africa, separated by a graphic chart.
After briefly talking to the secretary, Julien steps back into his office and shares
the frame with another map from which the camera, drawing a spatial parallel,
tilts to a drawer, where the protagonist finds a pair of gloves, a file and a gun.
Climbing up to the balcony, Julien pays a visit to Simon Carala, the corrupt
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chairman of the company and Florences tyrannical husband. The protagonist
gives a report to Carala, and while he is flipping through it, we see a similar juxta-
position of maps and charts to that in Juliens office. At this point in the narrative,
we also find out that Julien is a veteran of the Indochinese and Algerian wars.
These male cartographies thus tell a story of global unidirectional exploitation
of Africa by Caralas European consortium. Indicators of territorial segregation
and control, they are not mappings of paths to freedom, but essentially treacher-
ous itineraries, leading to nothing but perdition, symbolically linked to weapons
and violence, as witnessed in the opening sequence. According to the dark and
implacable fate that these cartographies forecast, Julien kills Carala, staging a
suicide, and is himself trapped after hours in the buildings descending elevator.
Left without a navigation map, Florence wanders aimlessly in the streets of Paris
at night, looking for her lost lover, while the Parisian screenscape directly echoes
her desperate inner journey. Both justice and fatality intersect the next morning.
Julien is delivered from a double murder of which he is falsely accused, but at
the same time he is unwillingly exposed by Florence: Juliens camera ironically
proves his innocence, but also furnishes a motive for Caralas murder, exposing
his affair with Florence.
Malles declared objective was to capture the modern side of Paris in a fic-
tive cartography, screening newly constructed modern buildings and a motel;
the only motel in France was in Normandy, not close to Paris as the movie
implies (Malle and French 1993: 144). A side effect of this urban modernization
was that the city, illuminated at night, became a new potential screenscape.
In addition, the cinematographer of the movie, Henri Deca, was able to use
an ultrasensitive film newly introduced on the market to capture the nocturnal
images in on-location shooting. The movie screens Jeanne Moreau without
make-up or artificial lighting, and, likewise, the glamorous side of Paris is not
portrayed. Recalling his work with Deca to film this scene, Malle describes
the full shock and rebellion of his technicians, who were horrified at seeing
Jeanne Moreau without make-up on film, and accused the director and cam-
eraman of ruining her star image (Malle and French 1993: 12). Illuminated
only by the city lights, Moreaus tough and statuesque close-ups correspond
to unromantic black-and-white shots of the urban space in undiffused light,
with its palpitating stream of everyday lived experiences (Figure 2).
Although she practises flnerie as well, Florences roaming becomes her
main activity as urban walker. After leaving the Royal Came caf, where she
waited in vain for Julien, her aimless strolls are screened in extended tracking
shots and slow-paced scenes. On the one hand, lateral tracking shots show
her looking and being looked at during her walks in the streets. In this visual
dimension, Florence is both subject and object of the multiple gazes emanat-
ing from the Parisian nightlife, a space pulsating with light and noise, in which
store windows and cafs illuminated by neon lights offer themselves to the passer-
bys gaze and where habitual drunks, urban walkers and prostitutes intersect.
On the other hand, shots of Florence show her approaching the camera as it
backtracks and accompanies her inner journey marked by an emotional car-
tography. Along this route, false eyeline matches emphasize the confusing and
disorganized spatial movement. For instance, after leaving Luigis bar, Florence
advances toward the camera, and in a close-up she looks off-screen. The next
image shows a bar window in which men are playing pinball. The shot seems
to be an eyeline match, but we soon revise our assumption when Florence
walks into the frame from the right. In her visual quest, the protagonist is
soon overwhelmed by the citys motion while roving in the streets around the
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Champs Elyses. Florences wanderings will also lead her straight to prison,
since at night, women walking in the streets and women of the streets are
easily confused. Therefore, she ends up at the police station under suspicion
of prostitution, this Red woman sexuality (as Austin calls her) becoming a
constant trait of Moreaus star persona (Austin 2003: 35).
Florences voice-over narration is another way of inscribing subjectivity on
the screenscape, and adds to the sense that she is lost and adrift, contributing to
a visual space literally impregnated with her inner thoughts. In sinuous track-
ing shots, an improvised jazz score by Miles Davis serves the same purpose,
resonating with the protagonists subjective voyage in the maze of urban seclu-
sion. Florences palpitating spatial experience thus resembles an inner drift due
to a perfect transparence between intimate affects and exterior movements.
When Florence mistakenly thinks she sees her lover in the street, it is her pure
passion that makes the camera pan hastily in a veritable emotion (Bruno 2002:
7; Brunos emphasis). Florences subjectivity thus dictates the movements of
the camera and the editing rhythm of the shots, creating visual effects that
appeal to the touch as well, marking a transition from the visual to the haptic,
from the separation imposed by the gaze to the intimacy of contact, as can be
seen when the incriminating photos framing the couple together appear in the
developer tray, and Florence dips her fingers into the solution to touch them.
In this way, the fluidity of cinematic techniques and the haptic dimension that
mark Florences inner journey are visually represented.
The movie ends with the protagonists direct gaze into the camera,
addressing the spectator and evaluating the temporal weight of her separa-
tion from Julien. This frame freezes Moreau in a femme fatale image or, as
Figure 2: Jeanne Moreau in Ascenseur pour lchafaud (Courtesy of
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Genevive Sellier puts it, she is an object of the look fascinating in passivity,
whose subjectivity is denied at the level of the plot (Sellier 2008:186). If,
however, we shift the discussion from narrative or visual agency to spatial
practice, Florence is a feminine Parisian traveller through both movement and
emotion, which establish her as an iconic urban star. Consequently, when the
city of Paris organized an exhibit titled Paris au cinma in 2006, Moreau on
the Champs Elyses at night was featured on the cover of the accompanying
publication (Binh and Garbarz 2005), and on the publicity posters temporar-
ily inhabiting the city, illustrating how her sensual star image and the dark
Parisian screenscape are intimately fused. Moreau thus embodies the fasci-
nation with a threatening and unknowable metropolis, cautioning that since
Paris is a woman, its feminine cityscape will be alluringly dangerous.
The iconic objectification of Paris became a vocal debate in the French press
in 2001, with the release of Le Fabuleux destin dAmlie Poulain. Straddling art
and popular cinema, Jeunets movie has remained controversial, the attitudes
of the critics being highly divided, either accusing Jeunet of screening a tour-
istic Paris composed of worn-out clichs or eulogizing his attempts at reviving
French cinema through the rich intertext of the movie and its references to the
photographs of Robert Doisneau, and the films of Jacques Prvert and Marcel
Carn. In the politically charged atmosphere of the French presidential elec-
tion campaign, the Inrockuptibles editor Serge Kaganski focused critical discus-
sion on the authenticity and artificiality of the Parisian screenscape, harshly
condemning the movies effacement of ethnic and social diversity in a series
of articles (see Kaganski 2001, with its evocative title, Amlie pas jolie).
The gamine Amlie (Audrey Tautou) is perfectly synchronized with the
on-screen representation of Paris. Her retro image corresponds to the nos-
talgic evocation of Paris in the 1950s. The ethnic non-representation of
Montmartre on-screen is equally reflected in Amlies luminous white skin,
digitally enhanced by the director in post-production. The Paris created by
the movie is purely fictitious, and Amlie correspondingly daydreams silently
and works creatively with fictional texts such as film clips, photographs and
forged letters, exposing through a mise en abyme the very process that Jeunet
used to create his cinematic image of Paris. We discover with Amlie that, as
Conley puts it, figures in a topographic field are as they are because geogra-
phy is destiny or else inversely [] their destiny, even if atopical, is limited
to the cartography of the film (Conley 2007: 3). In this view, it makes sense
that with the initial appearance of a map in the movie, Amlie meets Nino
Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), her predestined lover. Ninos last name is
also that of a Parisian street, suggesting that the movie is a love story about
Paris as well. In the mtro stop of Abbesses, Amlie is screened walking on
the mtro platform, sharing the frame with a Parisian map as a track back-
ward and a racking focus uncover and draw attention to a blind mans gramo-
phone playing Frhels nostalgic song Si tu ntais pas l (If You Werent
Here). Thus, the shift from Amlie and the map to the blind man a trans-
parent figure of fate links cartography to destiny right before Amlie sees
Nino. In the subsequent shot, while Amlie is walking, her cartoon-like image
is visually superimposed on a Parisian map ubiquitous in all mtro stations.
In this moment, the iconic images both of Paris and of Amlie, as well as the
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touristic and existential journeys they tell, are held simultaneously in tension
(Figure 3).
Following this love-at-first-sight episode, Amlie initiates a game to direct
her soulmate Nino to find her. Through Amlies manipulations, the city of
Paris becomes a huge labyrinth with complex enigmas. According to Wendy
B. Faris, the labyrinth represents a puzzle and a solution, a journey and an
arrival, seeing the cityscape as both maps and routes and encapsulating
the experience of the city as diachronic wandering and synchronic mapping
(Faris 1991: 38); as a result, a visual paradox emerges in the figure of the laby-
rinth since it is not only represented by a formalized visual pattern, but also
symbolizes confusion. When Amlie discovers Ninos lost photo album, the
crane camera movement is very complex, illustrating this duality of the laby-
rinth as a sign: its contingency through the representation of the street and its
ordering impulse through a high-angle shot. The scene starts from a very low
mode shot close to the ground and dollies in on Amlie, sitting on the stairs
and flipping through the pages of the album. Simultaneously, the camera,
through a tilt, gains height, turns in a 180-degree movement, and ends with a
birds-eye shot of Amlie, with Paris off-screen as a labyrinth in front of her.
Consequently, in the Sacr-Coeur episode in which Amlie guides Nino to
his scrapbook, she uses chalk markers drawn on the ground, a statue imper-
sonator and a telescope to punctuate the proper order of discovery. Again,
the camera tracks Ninos movements from a low mode close to the ground
to high-angle shots reinforcing a strong sensation of maze turns and move-
ments. Amlie, therefore, is no mere female city walker: she is a mapmaker
on a love quest. Through the dual image of the labyrinth, she articulates space
and disseminates clues in the Parisian landscape, transforming chaos into fate
and contingency into destiny.
Figure 3: Amlie in front of the mtro map (courtesy of Miramax).
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Female bodies in Paris
If Amlies Paris is examined through Brunos atlas of emotions frame-
work, the city reveals itself as concrete texture. Amlie herself is depicted as
having a strong preference for tactile experiences (such as sticking her hand
in a barrel of grain, or tossing stones on the canal Saint-Martin). In the scene
in which she guides a blind man to the mtro stop Lamarck-Caulaincourt,
Amlie becomes a haptic mediator. She lists affectionate details (the drum
majors widow who still wears her husbands coat), enumerates accidental
elements (the missing ear of a horse bust that marks the horse butchers sign),
the laughs of the passers-by, melon smells, the visual delights of the street
shops, as well as the flow of desire between a child, a dog and a roast chicken.
The fast Steadicam shots follow her inventory in a dynamically edited scene,
repeatedly intercutting point-of-view shots with shots showing Amlie on
her guiding walk, illustrating the pulsating stream of sensations in the vibrant
street life. Unsurprisingly, at the end of the journey the blind man experiences
an ecstatic delight, visually represented by a warm yellow halo surrounding
him. The movie is thus to be read in terms of both interiority and exteriority
as Amlies journeys alternate the glorious objectification of iconic Parisian
spaces such as the Sacr-Coeur, le Pont des Arts, the cafs, and cobblestone
streets with imagined inner landscapes and amorous labyrinths.
In contrast to the careful mapping of the city in Le Fabuleux destin dAmlie
Poulain, Chaos focuses on male-created disorder in the Parisian screenscape,
and exoticise(s) the ethnic other (Tarr 2005: 112). In a hurry to a dinner, a
bourgeois couple, Paul (Vincent Lindon) and Hlne (Catherine Frot), acci-
dentally hit a prostitute fleeing from three men. Instead of helping her, Paul
locks the car doors and calmly watches the young woman beaten into uncon-
sciousness, hurrying to a carwash to cynically efface the bloody traces of the
unfortunate encounter. His wife Hlne, however, cannot clean her memory
and visits the seriously injured victim in the hospital. The first part of the movie
depicts Nomie (Rachida Brakni) immobilized, while Hlne, reminded of her
own social and familial entrapment, gradually becomes an invigorating female
action figure in the city of Paris. Possessing better detective skills than the
police, knocking out a pimp, fighting leaders of a prostitution ring in the open
street, travelling with Nomie to her mother-in-laws to escape the police, she
is profoundly moved by this female friendship.
In the second part of the movie, Nomies story is told through an extended
flashback. Running away from an arranged marriage in Algeria, the beurette
Malikas identity is split trapped into prostitution with the name Nomie.
After moving from Marseille to Paris, she does not have a place in the city,
existing only on the sidewalks of the Parisian outer belt, where cars and trains
pass by and highway direction signs seem to ironically indicate no escape. Her
desolate landscape is one dominated by forced immobility and violent physi-
cal abuse, as she herself is trapped in the ultimate commodification of the
body. Intra muros, Nomie is confined to clubs and streets at night, an alter-
nate spatial universe in which the traffic of female bodies is silently invisible.
Portrayed in the banlieue twice while visiting her sister, she is framed hiding
behind asphalt walls, since she is an intruder here as well. Fighting for mobil-
ity in such a constrictive milieu becomes a perilous and violent enterprise, as
is shown by reiterated shots of her running body pursued by pimps.
Including a characters direct address to the camera, the stretched flash-
back narrated through voice-over covers numerous dramatic events. Serreau
increases the artificial quality of the images and achieves a distanciation effect
by the use of a DVCAM. In a sense, the very quality of the shots reflects
SFC_10.2_art_Bazgan_095110.indd 105 6/2/10 9:43:46 PM
Nicoleta Bazgan
Nomies subjectivity, reproducing her affective incapacities and emotional
numbness. Further, this flatness of the image and the chaotic wealth of infor-
mation it covers recall a mode of spectatorship that occurs daily when skim-
ming the news about urban dramas and (ethnic) violence done to women in
the city, recalling viewers superficial sliding on the surface of the screened
Throughout Nomies story, the reification of her body and subjective
agency feed into each other, never completely separated on-screen. While her
body is on constant display being in the midst of the action, subjective point-
of-view shots from Nomies perspective illustrate her desperate search for
Figure 4: The poster for Chaos Bac distribution (Courtesy of
SFC_10.2_art_Bazgan_095110.indd 106 5/10/10 8:29:21 AM
Female bodies in Paris
freedom in the city. The long flashback, for example, ends on a subjective shot
in which Nomie desperately runs in the ninth arrondissement at night and
stops in front of Hlne and Pauls car, meeting their gaze. A parallel point-
of-view shot, this time marking a successful escape, occurs when the female
protagonist drives to purchase a house and we hear, in voice-off, partir (to
leave), as she intimately asserts her acquired mobility. In between these two
corresponding scenes, Nomies freedom becomes possible through a care-
fully plotted trap organized to escape her criminal pursuers. At the mtro stop
Svres-Babylone, she incriminates her pimp Touki by offering him a bribe,
and at the same time alerts the leader of the Parisian prostitution ring while
Hlne informs the police. To get a closer look at the scene through binocu-
lars, the women rent a room at the nearby Hotel Lutlia. Again, subjective
high-angle shots from their perspective show all the participants involved
in the setup. Arriving at the meeting place, Touki looks around in front of
an arrondissement map, which is usually placed at the mtro exits, indicat-
ing historical landmarks in the surroundings. From the point-of-view shot
of Hlne and Nomie, the map behind Touki becomes a white spot used
to identify him and to frame him to pin him on the map in a spot whose
name (Babylon) indicates his dehumanization and perversion. In this high-
angle position, the feminine partners watch their scheme unfold successfully
as Touki is shot and all other criminal players arrested. Despite the success
of her revenge, Nomie/Malika leaves the labyrinthine and dangerous city
to find her freedom outside Paris. This spatial choice problematizes the place
of the beurette in the Parisian metropolis and questions the ways in which
her freedom can be achieved within city limits. In this sense, the movie ends
ambiguously on the images of the four women Hlne and her mother-
in-law as well as Malika and her younger sister reunited at Malikas new
home, far away from urban chaos. The female camaraderie crosses ethnicity
and age as the camera pans from one to the other in a close-up on each of
their faces looking off-screen toward the sea, projecting their subjectivities
onto journeys that are about to begin.
The beurette Nomie/Malika and the gamine Amlie thus move through
two different Parisian cityscapes in 2001, and their on-screen paths do not
cross. Nevertheless, both Brakni and Tautou intersect off-screen the Parisian
trajectory of their reel counterparts. Confessing to Madame Figaro how she
became a Parisienne, Brakni emphasizes that her career was defined by a
move from the Parisian banlieue to the city centre (Brakni 2008). Unaffected
by international stardom, Tautou is depicted in media texts as still living in the
Montmartre neighbourhood, paralleling her on-screen heroine (Strauss 2006).
These various media texts superimpose reel travels with real-life journeys to
the point that Parisian actresses wear the text of their urban iconicity on their
image, and, in turn, representations of Paris are impregnated with their star
close-ups, even literally in Parisian advertising spaces, from mtro walls to
street-side billboards.
The presence of these female icons in urban space and their cartographic
affinity raise questions about how their images not only productively guide
consumption, but also interact with the Parisian scenery. In this sense,
tracing journeys from the celluloid screen to the cobblestone roads, Le Fabuleux
destin dAmlie Poulain has already marked Parisian space, through special
tourist routes, illustrating the spatial impulse of its heroine. In various pub-
licity texts, female stars also become guides in Paris. On an interactive map,
the official Chanel website takes the viewer on a journey into Mlle Chanels
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Nicoleta Bazgan
Parisian secret places (Chanel Website). At 31, rue Cambon, an illustrious
guide awaits, Jeanne Moreau, who takes the audience on a trip down mem-
ory lane, reminiscing about Coco Chanel. In this way, media texts targeting
Parisian consumption allow for a space where female subjectivities emerge as
French female stars map city places, and tell their own urban stories.
On-screen and in media discourses, the myth of the Parisienne thus rein-
vents itself on the glamorous surface of female celebrities, through nego-
tiations between objective image and subjective vision, between iconic and
intimate Paris. On the one hand, star gazing parallels sightseeing. Parisian
sites and female performers in their roles of sexualized Parisian women,
femmes fatales, gamines or beurettes become cinematic icons. On the other
hand, through the metonymical mobility they share with the city, French
actresses, in both art and popular films, are dynamic travellers in the Parisian
space, each in her own right: Bardot through the pursuit of love, Moreau
through passionate roaming, Tautou through amorous labyrinths and, finally,
Brakni, plotting her path to liberty. Initiating travels on- and off-screen,
including haptic journeys, these feminine cartographies are conducive to
experiences that illustrate a complex mode of creating desire through oppo-
site movements where objectivity and subjectivity, the visual and tactile,
iconic images and emotional movements, clich and inner screenscapes are
enmeshed, constructing the moving cinematic experience of Paris and of its
eternally faithful vedettes and female stars.
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Binh, N. T. and Garbarz, F. (2005), Paris au cinma: la vie rv e de la capitale de
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Conley, T. (2007), Cartographic Cinema, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
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Female bodies in Paris
Strauss, F. (2006), Audrey Tautou, bientt dans Da Vinci Code. Lair de rien,
Tlrama, 6 May,
bientot_dans_da_vinci_code _air_de_rien.php. Accessed December 2009.
Tarr, C. (2005), Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France,
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Bazgan, N. (2010), Female bodies in Paris: iconic urban femininity and
Parisian journeys, Studies in French Cinema 10: 2, pp. 95109, doi: 10.1386/
Nicoleta Bazgan is Assistant Professor of French Cinema at the University of
Maryland, Baltimore County. Her research interests include French contem-
porary cinema, cinema and the city, French female stardom, and national cin-
emas. She is currently working on a book manuscript focusing on the female
star system in France titled Irresistibly French: Female Stardom and Frenchness.
Contact: Department of Modern Languages, Linguistics and Intercultural
Communication, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop
Circle, Baltimore, MD 21250, USA.
SFC_10.2_art_Bazgan_095110.indd 109 5/8/10 12:17:49 PM
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