Friday 2 May 2014

A ‘Frantic’ search for Polanski's Paris

Filmed in 1987 and released in 1988, Roman Polanski’s ‘Frantic’ is not the best film ever to be set in Paris. It is though one that continues to intrigue, perhaps because it plays the city against type, relentlessly capturing a paranoid rather than a picturesque Paris. It is this visual aspect that is the focus here, following a request from a reader to hunt down some of the filming locations. More than 25 years after the film was made, could I find places that are perhaps no longer there - or maybe never even existed in the first place?

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:

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.

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:

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. 

Superficially, the filming locations seem the same, and yet they tell us a lot about how Paris has changed.  These locations were chosen carefully, not because they were spectacular but rather because of the atmosphere they created. This is a working Paris - although completely free of humans in the early hours of the morning - a place where people made and sold bags, carpets and furniture. It's a place with little to catch the eye, little to help someone identify where they are, and little to make a visitor feel safe and secure.

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


Yuri G. said...

Thanks again for you help with these locations, Adam. I was in Paris in April and I covered the locations for the entire film here. I couldn't identify what stood for the American embassy though.

Adam said...

Thanks for the comment Yuri. I've added a link to your excellent site in the article.

Anonymous said...

Always interesting to see places you know in films. I love Truffaut's 400 Coups for all those street scenes - almost visceral. Looking forward to checking out Yuri's site.

Philippa said...

I love this kind of detective work and the old-and-new photo juxtapositions. I remember the film well, and saw it more than once. It reminded me of the Paris of 1980, when I was a student there. It was much grittier then and full of rather grubby corners that were both fascinating and a little intimidating.

V. said...

At this time Paris was still alive. It wasn't the museum dedicated to rich customers he slowly but sadly firmly become :-(

Yuri G. said...

Found 'the American embassy' and updated the post.

Karen said...

Fascinating! On my last visit to France, I stayed in an apartment right in this area, on rue Faubourg Saint-Antoine, and as Frantic is one of my favorite movies, I wish I'd known this at the time!

Db said...

What is the motorway road called at the very beginning of the film?

Anonymous said...

The motorway in the begining is when they have left A1 and go west on the Bd peripherique around Porte de Clignancourt and st Ouen ..

The end scene is the same way but they are filmning backwards…

Anonymous said...

The inside scenes at the A Touch Of Class club seem to have been filmed at the Chez Regine club in the Champs Elysees area (recognisable to its particular ceiling). Only the Bain Douches is credited for the first club scene with the cocaine dealer.

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