Earlier this year, the ARTE television channel broadcast the film ‘Frantic’ during a special Roman Polanski evening. It’s a film that has always reminded me of Scorsese’s New York based ‘After Hours’. Both date from the 1980s and are considered quite minor films in the production of the directors, but both capture a certain nightmarish vision of the city, a place where an individual can suddenly become hopelessly lost and trapped.
I hadn’t seen either film in a long time, but I was immediately struck by something when watching Frantic. The film was made less than ten years before I first arrived in Paris, but I didn’t recognise the city at all. Everything seemed different, from the buses to the phone booths, the shop fronts to the Metro cars. Paris is a city that is said to change very slowly, but in ten years a certain facade of the city had completely disappeared - or perhaps has slowly slipped from my memory...
Interestingly, the film itself begins with a similar reflection. Two of the film’s main characters, Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) and his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley) are arriving in Paris for a medical conference, a city they previously visited on their honeymoon, perhaps 15 years earlier. “Do you know where we are” asks Sondra, half-asleep in the back of the taxi. “No, it’s changed too much” replies Richard, looking with confusion at the périphérique motorway, a road that had almost certainly sprung up since their last visit.
The unfamiliarity of the Paris landscapes in Frantic is something of a common theme. A few days after the film was aired, Yuri (a reader of the blog and editor of the fascinating Movie Tourist website) sent me some freeze frames from the film and asked if I recognised the locations. They seemed at once familiar and yet somehow exotic, but I couldn’t pinpoint the exact spots. Luckily, Twitter was there to help.
Although some of the filming sites are well established – the Grand Hotel InterContinental on Rue Scribe, the Passage Brady and the Île aux Cygnes, others are more difficult to identify, notably the locations around Michelle’s (Emmanuelle Seigner) apartment. Reader Yuri's screen grabs were of these nocturnal exteriors - a banal street and a more distinctive courtyard. After asking for assistance with identification on Twitter, suggestions were quick to arrive, including what turned out to be the correct locations.
The first of these was the street scene. As Yuri pointed out, what seemed to be a bell tower at the far end of the street could be a clue, but there was little else here to help. Nevertheless, Pól Ó Ceallaigh was able to identify it immediately:
@INVISIBLEPARIS I think it's rue St Nicolas in the 11th facing rue d Charenton, google map it and look at the buildings at the end of the st
— Pól Ó Ceallaigh (@DT_Man)
Google Street View seemed to confirm this location (between the Rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine and the Rue de Charenton), but a trip to the street a few days later made doubly sure.
The Rue Saint Nicolas. Finding a scooter in almost the same location was a happy coincidence!
Interestingly, another contributor on Twitter was able to give even more information on this scene and on the filming of the movie.
@INVISIBLEPARISit's rue du faubourg saint antoine. I was there the night they shot that
— Laurent Vachaud (@LaurentVachaud)
As Laurent later told me, "When I was a student at the french film school IDHEC, Pierre Guffroy, the production designer took us one night to the location they were shooting at. It was a great thrill to see Harrison Ford whom I remember as a very down to earth kind of guy. We also visited the Bains douches disco set in Boulogne. They recreated that place in the studio and shot the whole scene there in one night."
The mystery of the second location, the courtyard with the distinctive glass canopies, was solved by Supergreg:
@INVISIBLEPARIS It is Cour des Trois frères https://t.co/NqoRKAwa5s
— supergreg (@supergreg3)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two locations are barely 50 metres apart. This, along with the fact that the door to the passage was being repaired, made it easy for me to take photos from (almost) the exact spots on which the original cameras were situated.
In the street scene, it is possible to pick out the name of a restaurant, 'Chez Marcel'. According to guidebooks from the time, this was an authentic 'Parigot' bistrot, the kind of place that had cheap bottles of wine ready on each table, and a regular crowd of local workers at lunchtime. Today it is a rather more chic Italian restaurant called 'Swann et Vincent', which seems to be offering a rather upmarket brunch the day I am there. The rest of the street also now seems smart and without any notion of menace.
It's a similar story in the Cour des Trois Frères. This is where Michelle lives in the film and a place where Richard Walker can never feel at ease. There is nothing particularly residential and homely about this location, with Michelle's rooftop apartment seemingly sitting above workshops and warehouses. Today these workshops are home to designers and architects, as well as a large hairdressing salon.
What seems clear is that if Polanski wanted to make the same film today, he would have to take his cameras to another part of Paris. This area - like many others across the city - has lost its edge, and it would be difficult to build up a sentiment of threat and oppressiveness in these tidy streets and spotless passages.
The visual aspect of 'Frantic' is perhaps its most interesting feature, and one that was very carefully studied. "Je ne voulais pas du Paris coloré des films américains. Je le voulais donc plutôt gris, mais avec des accents," (I didn't want the colourful Paris of American films. I wanted it grey, but with accents) declared Polanski. These accents included the green uniforms of the refuse workers who regularly crop up in the film (in complete contrast to the brown suit that Harrison Ford wears throughout the film), and are also evident in these scenes from the film (the blue scooter, the lights through the glass canopies).
Visually, it is a film that is striking, and one that captured a very rarely seen Paris. If Polanski had taken as much time over the (rather thin) scenario, 'Frantic' could have been one of the great Paris movies. It remains though a fascinating snapshot from not so long ago - but also from another century!
>To see all the Frantic filming locations, visit Youri's Movie Tourist blog.