Paris est une fête
Un film en 18 vagues
"Fluctuat nec mergitur"
(Paris coat of arms)
"Le navire, c’est l’hétérotopie par excellence."
The title of Sylvain George’s latest cinematic meditation is a translation of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. “Paris est une fête” became a rallying cry after the terrorist attacks of November 2015, a slogan of resistance to terror that turned spaces from city squares to café terraces into battlegrounds for the fearless practice of fraternity. A month later, the city of Paris put this slogan to profitable use and inaugurated a promotional campaign to restore the capital’s cultural, commercial and touristic vitality. However, while solidarity in convivial gatherings was celebrated, political gatherings in public spaces were banned by the state of emergency. The opening scene of Paris est une fête ushers us into this fissure. The spectacle of leisure and consumption in the capital is traversed by armed, uniformed figures of the security state. The brightly-illuminated grande roue rotates to a crackling soundtrack of remixed fireworks and reappears lit up like a kaleidoscope behind the imposing obelisk. Children skate in an outdoor ice rink under the flicker of electric billboards and showers of pixelated light; the poster of a pointing Darth Vader is menacingly captioned “Your Empire Needs you.” We enter an up-to-date, electrified version of the fête impériale, a carnival of consumption under state surveillance.
Paris est une fête swiftly dismantles this phantasmagoria of tourism and security. The eighteen waves of its composition traverse Paris from center to periphery in a centrifugal movement that takes us to the urban wastelands around the périphérique, the migrant camps of Aubervilliers, the near suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. This movement even crosses the Atlantic to carry us into New York’s financial district, with its towering skyscrapers, its banks, and other visual allusions to 9/11, global finance, and the Occupy movement. But it is La Place de la République, a threshold to the gentrified zone of Paris’s east side, that becomes a monumental site of return throughout the film, with the statue of Marianne holding an olive branch in one hand and resting the other hand on a tablet bearing the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In contemporary times, this site of revolutionary memory has become a layered urban space that hosts several commemorative claims and political struggles. For Sylvain George, the waves of protest that unfurl in this location illustrate the kinds of “recherches politiques expérimentales à l’œuvre dans des lieux hétérotopiques.”1
Indeed, Place de la République has recently emerged as a site of incompatible juxtapositions characteristic of what Michel Foucault elusively defines as heterotopia, which has “le pouvoir de juxtaposer en un seul lieu réel plusieurs espaces, plusieurs emplacements qui sont en eux-mêmes incompatibles.”2 With the camera returning time and again to a sign advertising classes for "Wall Street English," revolutionary Marianne rises amidst the signs of neoliberal global financialization. Despite its fixity in space, the square is traversed by multiple sites and temporalities, serving not only as a lieu de mémoire for the victims of the November attacks, but also a key battleground for social movements, an arena of police violence, an alternative outdoor classroom for the Left, a refugee encampment, a site of their eviction by the state. Wave after wave of protests traverse it in the name of the freedom of assembly, national labor rights, borderless refugee rights, and global ecological survival, and as such, the symbolic claims that converge around Marianne criss-cross geopolitical sites, scales and histories “comme un réseau qui relie des points et qui entrecroise son écheveau.”3
For Foucault, it is the ship, with its maritime circulation of goods and passengers, that is the ultimate figure of heterotopia ("le navire, c’est l'hétérotopie par excellence"4). The ship has also been the emblem of Paris's coat of arms since the fourteenth-century. As the film reminds us, the city's motto– Fluctuate nec mergitur, or tossed about by waves without sinking, reappeared on the Place de la République as a slogan of resistance to terrorism in the aftermath of the November attacks. Given the film’s maritime poetics, we might be tempted to read the Paris that emerges from its eighteen waves as an emblem of this resistance, in a Balzacian celebration of the city as imperial and unsinkable ship: "Paris n'est-il pas un sublime vaisseau chargé d'intelligence?...cette nauf a bien son tangage et son roulis; mais elle sillonne le monde...".5 Yet, on the contrary, it is this 19th-century urban imaginary of Paris, as conquering vessel and "capital of modernity", that is jostled by George’s cinematic waves. Paris est une fête fractures the city into a kaleidoscope, decenters and textualizes it. Paris is covered in writing, in the form of advertisements, packaging, political slogans, graffiti tagging and street art. Graffiti in particular is a textual inscription that harbors strains of contestatory minoritarian thought: ‘Guantanamo’ is scrawled on a public phone by the migrant camp in Aubervilliers, a wall of street art evokes the fate of Syrian children while French children celebrate Christmas. It is with such palimpsestic layerings that the film opens up our imaginary of Paris to “migratory waves" from elsewhere, freighting the bodies and stories of those who have crossed the Mediterranean and survive in the city's depths.
Just as Baudelaire’s flâneur in monumental Paris is also a nocturnal, even lycanthropic prowler through the city’s shadows, George’s camera takes us “dans les plis sinueux des vieilles capitales.”6 At the interstices and margins of the capital, migrants and refugees find shelter and survive on the streets. The camera accompanies the rhythms of their quotidian experience, as they set up mattresses outside on old carpets strewn with leaves, or smoke, eat, exercise and sleep, or pack up as the police disperses their encampments. Walter Benjamin’s influence is palpable in these scenes. The cinematic gaze is like Baudelaire’s poet as rag picker (chiffonier), gathering up what the city discards, framing them as choses vues, and charging certain images with an ironic or allegorical resonance: a refugee lies on a plastic bag labelled “Dis merci,” another pensively thumbs through one of those French school children’s cahier d’écriture, its pages deterritorialized by entries in English and Arabic evoking memories of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Our guide through the shadows of Paris as “movable feast” is a homeless unaccompanied minor named Mohamed.7 The camera reserves its greatest intensity—in movement, in framing—for its encounters with this figure. We watch him walk through derelict zones at the edges of Paris, follow railway tracks near the Gare du Nord, curl up in a heap of trash. He also appears in the sequences set in Place de la République, traversing the square, or contemplating its memorial; a ghost among ghosts. Mohamed embodies the waves of migration from across the Mediterranean, and attests to the price exacted by Europe to keep its urban vessels, its capitals, aloft above the waters. Through mouthfuls of food speared out of a can, the boy recounts his itinerary from Guinea to France, and tells of the horror of his Mediterranean crossing, imprinted like a scar in his memory. “Une chose qui m’a marquée, qui m’a vraiment touché au coeur,” he begins, recounting how a fellow passenger on the boat was thrown overboard or "sacrificed" by the smugglers to economize on fuel. Weakened by hunger and thirst, Mohammed did not intervene. After a few kilometers, he saw blood rising to the surface of the ocean, “comme si le mec avait été déchiqueté…par un gros poisson. On a trop trop souffert, quoi.” We don't know much about the nameless drowned passenger, only that he was larger than the others, hence the smugglers’ ruthless calculation that he was equivalent to three passengers. Still, in this instance, Mohamed’s verbal testimony and its filmic preservation become a vessel that carries forward the memory of the dead.
The anonymous body, drowned to save others and bereft of a tomb, is given a visual figure several “waves” or sequences later, when the camera zooms in and pauses on a dead fish, and then moves through a series of close-ups on its glassy eyes, gills and shimmering scales. In the last shot we discover that the fish is lying, improbably, at the top of the stairs of a metro station. It is a carefully-composed nature morte, ‘washed up’ in the bowels of Paris. This trace of the sea in the city’s transit system, the series of close ups on the fish, taken from multiple angles, in a site of underground passages, is a haunting reminder of the lives thrown overboard by Europe’s border regime, the ships sunk in the anonymous mass grave of the Mediterranean, lives ‘sacrificed’ to preserve a certain vision of the city and its boundaries intact and aloft: fluctuat nec mergitur.
These visual evocations of “the drowned and the saved” compel us to ask whose life is deemed worthy of remembrance and mourning.8 For Judith Butler, “one way of asking the question of who “we” are in these times of war is by asking whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable. We might think of war as dividing populations into those who are grievable and those who are not.”9Paris est une fête shows us the agonistic currents of Paris’s underbelly, a ‘war on terror’ that is waged on multiplying fronts (both internal and external), and the unequal commemoration of victims, some of whom are more grievable than others. This uneven distribution of mourning is suggested in the juxtaposition of two memorials. The first is a sparse stele erected in Clichy-sous-Bois to commemorate Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, the two boys who ran into an electricity substation while fleeing the police and died by electrocution on October 27, 2005. The adolescents had committed no crime and were abandoned to their fate by the police once they entered the EDF transformer site. Their death catalyzed the banlieue riots of that year and became a lasting emblem of the state’s differential protection of its populations.10 In a deserted, nocturnal setting, with a mournful manga-influenced soundtrack, the camera lingers on the memorial stele, on the photo of the two boys, and the inscription Deux anges au paradis. It is at once a gesture of resistance to the neglect of the minority populations living in Paris’s suburban housing projects, and a meditation on the differential grievability of French citizens. The montage juxtaposes the abandoned memorial to Zyed and Bouna and the makeshift memorial at the Place de la République, where photos of young men and women are lovingly illuminated by votives and strewn with flowers, below the reproduction of a Pietà. The elegiac meditation on a memorial at the margins of the city, bearing a photograph of the two boys, echoes the public contemplation of the victims of the November attacks, not only visually but lexically with the angelic references of the inscriptions. A web of correspondences link these different (and differentially racialized) dead bodies, reinstating the claims of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré on public mourning without equating one nexus of violence with another.
Sylvain George’s cinema is an archive of fragile existences; it visually preserves ‘disposable’ lives that have been consigned to ‘disposable’ spaces. One of his previous films, Qu’ils reposent en révolte, is—among other things—a memorial to migrants killed by the border regime in Calais.11 Its haunting conclusion shows a migrant in what is either a humanitarian camp or a detention center, who crawls into a bunk and pulls a gauzy white sheet over himself like a shroud, his darkness still visible under the surface. This figure, the shrouded body deemed ‘out of place,’ returns in Paris est une fête, when Mohammed curls up by a heap of trash in a derelict area off the Boulevard Macdonald and pulls an aluminum sheet over himself.
Yet George’s films cannot be reduced to cinematic shrouds for history’s vanquished, nor does his cinematography frame his human subjects as simple victims of state violence or passive objects of humanitarian compassion. As one perceptive critic says, “Les films de Sylvain George sont à la fois étendards et linceuls.”12 The bodies and lives he documents are as tenacious as they are precarious; they bristle with energy and deploy themselves across space in spite of the state’s multiple forms of containment. The resilience of subjects facing repression crystallizes in the scenes of protests at Place de la République, to be sure. These sequences of collective dissent by young citizens conveys the frustration, imagination and potentialities of a generation; their expressive and individuating energies are illustrated by a rapper celebrating his improvisational skills during a Nuit Debout gathering. Even more powerful than these public performances of dissent, however, are the more intimate contestations found at the city’s edges. The camera shows us bodies and things suddenly endowed with smoldering kinetic force.
In one visually arresting moment, a pair of dark hands gesture in patterns that verge of signification. The hand, Aristotle’s "instrument of instruments,” is a familiar synecdoche for human agency, volition and creation. Here they join in prayer, then one hand extends like an exploratory claw, with another one protectively placed on top of it; two fists turn toward each other and collide with force; a palm outstretched as if hailing or halting as if in danger turns into a hand joyously pulsing as if in dance; fists punch the air with gathering speed. Gesture, here, composes an intensive expression of aggression, defense, vitality, interpellation and improvisation.
Such bodily arts of resistance might remind viewers of Qu’ils reposent en révolte, which shows migrants in Calais’s encampments shave or burn off their fingerprints to evade biometric capture by EU databases policing illegalized movement within its borders.13 One of them designates fingerprint mutilation as a technique developed in resistance to the European Union’s techniques of surveillance. For these subjects, fingerprinting is a form of branding reminiscent of slavery, as it seeks to territorialize bodies on the move. And as such, the destruction of fingerprints is an act of resistance seeking to take the future back into their own hands, subverting the logic of identification and surveillance at work in the border regime. The choreography of hands in Paris est une fête further develops George’s interest in the corporeal resources of abjected subjects: “Parmi ces gestes, ceux proférés par les corps meurtris, assujettis, prennent une valeur particulière en ce qu’ils montrent les puissances insoupçonnées du corps, les différentes possibilités de transfiguration du corps.”14 Such gestures—as acts of disidentification— are paradoxically distinguished from the contestatory rituals of citizens on public stages. Unlike the public scenes traditionally associated with political existence, these other scenes of metamorphosis happen “elsewhere,” invoking their own gestural regime of invisibility rather than representation.
Such scenes of transfiguration and potentiality do not always take the human figure as their point of reference in George’s cinema. For instance, Paris est une fête produces the city not as a human-centered polis but as an ecology of belonging, where no body or thing is out of place: a pensive face, an abandoned toy, a statue, a rat crawling up from the riverbank, hands, rags, a discarded plastic bag, all these and more are bestowed equivalent intensities of attention. These elements are at once particularized and woven into non-hierarchical cohabitation within an environment. Surfaces reflect and continue each other, in visual transfers between the gleam of human skin, the marble of statues, the shimmer of water, the glimmer of fish scales, the shine of aluminum and plastic sheets. Periodically, the moon in a haze of fog looms above, its luminescence reflected on the Seine’s eddies, as we hear the city’s industrial creaks and clangs.15 These shots open a space-time of mutation and potentiality that is not reducible to historical scale or anthropocentric perspective.
The most provocative instantiation of this ecology at the threshold between human and non-human is the eerie “sunflower” sequence. The camera follows a paved road at night, low to the ground, and veers hors piste into a sunflower field, where low-angle tracking shots pause on large sunflower heads. The throbbing remix of jungle beats might evoke historical scenes of hunt, marronage or flight, yet the pace of the shot seems too deliberate, and its angle too low to the ground to suggest an upright, human perspective. If anything, it is the sunflowers, with their illuminated heads and the pensive bent of their nightly slumber, that evoke the human face, while at the same time visually recalling the circular structure of the grande roue. The sequence ends with a shot on a naked human body viewed from the back, curled up in fetal position, its gender and race are indeterminate. While it may be tempting to offer an allegorical reading of this conclusion, where the human form is the end of the quest– Moses in the bulrushes, or, on the contrary, bare or naked life in a recurrent state of exception– the sunflower sequence upends anthropocentric correspondences and resists allegorical decoding. The human body is but one presence among others in this environment, rather than serving as its telos or center. The sunflower field is yet another nocturnal site of carnival: the close ups on their tilted heads filled with velvety kernels, the promising multiplicity of their seeds, gestures towards an ecology of becoming that has yet to be envisaged.
As we have seen, the eco-political virtualities of Paris as heterotopia emerge off the beaten path, in discreet carnivals at the city’s edges and interstices. The final scene of Paris est une fête is a case in point. We glimpse a homeless group boarding a bus towards shelter at night, when suddenly, Mohamed erupts into song and delivers a riveting beatbox performance. His chest, throat and mouth turn into a percussive instrument that overrides the buzzing of urban circulation; his syncopated hiccups seem reminiscent of the gasps of a drowning man, remastered into rhythm. His body produces a resonance that mingles with the urban soundscape. ‘Yah man, listen!’ he repeats, before disappearing under a pile of trash between a parked car and the banks of the Seine. In this final vision, Paris is not so much as a movable feast that stays with you “wherever you go for the rest of your life” (as Hemingway put it) or a ship remaining buoyant above the currents (as promised by its coat of arms). Instead, the city is moved and altered by the bodies and rhythms of those who traverse it, by those whose nocturnal rumbling signals another, more insurrectionary feast building in the shadows of the capital.
1 Joffrey Spreno, “Paris est une fête – Un film en 18 vagues : Entretien avec Sylvain George,” Diacritik, 27 mars 2017: https://diacritik.com/2017/03/27/paris-est-une-fete-un-film-en-18-vagues-entretien-avec-sylvain-george/, accessed 04/19/2017.
2 Michel Foucault, “Des espaces autres” Dits et écrits Vol. IV (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 752-762.
5 Honoré de Balzac, La Fille aux yeux d'or, (Paris: GF Flammarion, 1998), 223.
6 Charles Baudelaire, “Les Petites vieilles”. Baudelaire's alternate titles for Le Spleen de Paris– La Lueur et la fumée and Petits poèmes lycanthropes– also resonate with the nocturnal settings of Paris est une fête.
7 George met Mohamed Camara in Calais, and he has since appeared in a number of productions.
8 I am of course alluding to Primo Levi’s meditation on the moral price of survival in The Drowned and the Saved.
9 Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Greivable (New York: Verso, 2009), 38.
10 The memory of the two boys was recently reactivated in the protests against police violence following Amada Traoré’s death in custody and Theo’s alleged rape.
11 It gestures to the memory of Louam, a young Erythrean mowed down by a car, and Khaillula, an Afghan migrant executed by human smugglers in 2008 because he did not have 600 euros for the illegal crossing into Britain.
13 For a reading of this scene in light of biopolitics and resistance, see Debarati Sanyal, “Calais’s ‘Jungle’: Refugees, Biopolitics and the Arts of Resistance” (Representations, forthcoming in summer 2017, advance version available online at http://www.representations.org/advance-publications/).
14 Spreno, 2017.
15 The soundtrack of Paris est une fête deserves its own study. I will only note the integration of urban sound in rhythms reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s experimentations.