Trying to pick a favorite movie is like trying to pick a favorite food: there are just too many favorites from which to choose. But if you narrow the field to movies with great automobile presence, it starts to be easier to pare one’s selections. There are lots of great movies which showcase cars and have great chase scenes, but two of my favorite are C’était un Rendezvous by Claude Lelouche, and John Frankenheimer’s Ronin.
I discovered Ronin in the late 1990s. Our family had been making due with a 20” television, and with the advent of larger, flat and 16:9 screens, we decided it might be time to update a bit. I went into the Tweeter store (Tweeter, before its demise, had long been on my list of favorite retailers) in Harvard Square (or HV2, as the Tweeter insiders referred to the location) to explore what was new in television. As I went from screen to screen, some conventional tube, some projection, I came to a widescreen television that caught my attention; not because of the quality of the picture, but because there was a BMW tearing through Paris, being chased by a Peugeot driven by Robert DeNiro with Jean Reno at his side. I was transfixed. A salesman came by, saw my interest, and offered to start the scene again. I think we watched it another time or two, and finally I asked him what it was. I left Tweeter knowing two things: I was going to buy a widescreen television, and I was going to buy Ronin. Within weeks I had both.
Watching the entire movie brought additional surprises. More cool chase scenes, and lots of views of Paris and Nice. That would have done it for me right there. But there was more. In fact, this movie had everything going for it: directed by John Frankenheimer, screenplay by David Mamet, starring Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno (my favorite French tough-guy actor), Natascha McElhone and automotive stars including a BMW M5, Audi S8, a Mercedes 6.9, and a Citroën XM. Intrigue, fire-fights, deception, betrayal, and yes, the fabulous chase scenes, all make for a delightful cinematic escape.
If one knows Paris, there is some humor in watching the BMW chase scene. While the scenes flow nicely together, when one studies the locations of various scenes, which as sewn together look contiguous, they create a path through Paris which would be impossible to navigate without the aid of worm holes. This was pointed out to me by my cousin, Jean-Philippe, who grew up in the 8th Arrondissement and knows Paris even better than I do. Of course, once I realized this, I spent too much time figuring out the hopscotch, when I should have just enjoyed the show. Some things you just shouldn’t over think!
Here’s a teaser, the scene that first got my attention. Watch it here if you’d like. But do yourself a favor—go find Ronin and watch it on a big screen with a great sound system.
C’était un Rendezvous (1976) is a different sort of film. Nine minutes long. No actors. No dialogue. Even the car which is the star never appears on screen. The premise is simple: a car is driven through Paris from the Boulevard Périphérique / Porte Dauphine to the steps of Sacré Coeur, in under nine minutes. One take. No edits. One camera, mounted on the front bumper of the unseen car. The opening has a statement which declares that no tricks or acceleration of the action were used in creating the film.
If you’ve never scene C’était un Rendezvous, hang on. I have not seen it in DVD, but even on the small screen it is breath-taking. If you don’t know about the movie, don’t read about it first. You’ll have lots of curiosity, as I did, and if you research too hard and long, you may walk away a bit disappointed when you discover the “man behind the curtain.” There is great legend and debate surrounding this film. What was the car? Who was the driver? Was Lelouche really arrested after the first screening? Who cares? Just watch the film! If you’ve ever driven in Paris, you’ll be especially impressed. The making of C’était un Rendezvous was perhaps the most egregiously irresponsible and sociopathic act (try counting the red lights which are blown through) ever taken by a film maker. Even knowing now that nobody was hurt or killed, can we imagine that anyone would ever have the insane creative courage to do something like this again?