The pleasures and pitfalls of cultural change, collectivism, and – oh yes, an unusual pair of cats
As the new century begins, it is now possible to look back on how Paris was presented – or presented itself, perhaps – in French cinema as the twentieth century drew to a close. Two films of the late 1990s seemed especially to capture the temper of the time: Window to Paris (Fenêtre vers Paris) and When the Cat’s Away (Chacun cherche son chat). Strikingly similar in structure and certain subject matter but otherwise unrelated, these films gave moviegoers around the world two different perspectives on the same scene, modern Paris in the throes of exciting yet challenging change.
Window to Paris arrived in theaters first, in 1995. Directed by Russian émigré Yuri Mamin, it was a multinational joint production with both French and Russian dialogue. That is significant in itself, symbolic of a new Europe in which barriers fall every day and unusual alliances become the norm. The post–Cold War world no longer has an Iron Curtain to block the East’s view of the West, and Paris once again can play its age-old role as the most seductive sight in that view. As might be expected in a work by a bicultural director, there is tremendous ambiguity present, with a point of view vacillating between propagandistic enthusiasm and wistful regret.
The story in Window begins in a gray, gloomy, unspecified Russian city, later identified as St. Petersburg. A motley crew of hapless musicians and street performers are seen trying to cheer up citizens in what appears to be a breadline. It turns out to be a vodka line, and there isn’t even any vodka left. These are hard times indeed for the Workers’ Paradise.
One of the street musicians turns out to be the story’s lead character: Nikolai Nikolayevich (portrayed by Serguej Dontsov), perpetually optimistic, continually beaten upon by circumstances. A teacher of “aesthetics” (i.e., music and dance) on the verge of losing his job, Nikolai shares an apartment with nearly a dozen other residents. Just when all seems bleakest, fate takes a hand in the form of a black cat. The pet of a former resident, it has returned to the apartment uncommonly well fed and content, despite the prevailing economic deprivations. Equally mysterious is how the cat could have reentered the apartment without coming through the door. A search of the dwelling reveals a heretofore unknown window in the back of a closet. The amazed residents, who have been drinking all night, then stagger out the window and down the fire escape to a lower building and finally to the street below. In their besotted state, they take a while to realize the magical truth: this city through the window is not gloomy and impoverished Petersburg, but beautiful and prosperous Paris.
Like Alice through the looking glass, the Russians have entered a French version of wonderland, full of bounty. Ironies abound as well. The Russians perceive Paris as a huge outdoor market overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, but seemingly having no customers in line. And age-old churches of great beauty attest to freedom of religion – “Such churches, and they don’t even believe in God,” comments one of the Russians.
Various little whimsical misadventures ensue. While the Parisian populace looks on bemused, the Russians get into comical mischief amidst the local color: the bateau mouche, organ grinders, brasseries, Montmartre, and even a ritzy private bar that turns out to be a nudist club. Afraid that the magical window will soon close up again, the Russians try to drag anything they can get their hands on through the window back to Petersburg, even a Citroën. Rationalizing this thievery, they claim to be entitled to this plunder because they “held back the Tartar-Mongols for 200 years, giving France time to evolve.” Funny as that line is, it is not very hard to imagine Paris winning a Darwinian contest as the most highly evolved of all cities.
As the Russians pass in and out of their own apartment, they have to tromp through another apartment on the Parisian side, belonging to an exasperated young French woman sculptor. She and Nikolai end up in a semi-romantic relationship despite her energetic efforts to keep the Russians from turning her living quarters into their personal thoroughfare. In a somewhat frightening sequence, the girl chases them back into Petersburg, only to find herself trapped on the Russian side in a nightmare of filth, ugliness, fanaticism, and mind-numbing grayness. Nikolai rescues her from the Russian police by claiming that she is Edith Piaf and by paying a bail consisting of two music cassettes and a hair dryer.
Nikolai brings not only the pretty Parisienne but also his school students back with him to Paris. The children consider it the greatest field trip in the history of the aesthetics class. Paris, to them, turns out to be all parks, games, balloons, and carousels.
At this point comes the moral crux of the story – missed by many American movie reviewers who saw onscreen only rich France and poor Russia and asked “So what?” The problem is that the children refuse to go back to their life in Russia, thus creating an ethical dilemma. They will not go back even to see their parents, whose life, the kids rationalize, will be easier without them. A debate ensues among Nikolai, the French woman, and the children. Nikolai is caught up in a serious quandary, one that must be confronted by every prospective immigrant seeking a better life. Is it right to flee to a land of wealth, or should one return to the homeland and work to improve it? The kids argue that if their grandmothers in Russia need medicine that they cannot afford, then it is better that the kids stay in Paris, where, in ten minutes, their song-and-dance act has already made 248 francs that could be sent back home to the family. But what of Mother Russia? “It’s a miserable, bankrupt country, but it’s your country,” pleads Nikolai, asking also, “Won’t you even try to make it better?”
Nikolai appears to decide to go back to Russia for good and bids adieu to his beloved Paris. But once he is back in Petersburg, he again has a strange experience that turns things around. Out in the street one day he spots the black cat squeezing into a small hole in a stone wall. Nikolai puts his ear to the hole and hears French music. He calls for his friends, who bring hammers and other tools. The final shot of the film shows them trying to smash down this “Berlin Wall,” this time determined to attain what’s on the other side by earning it with their own effort. And so the film ends.
Window to Paris thus reinvigorates the myth of Paris as the Promised Land, a colorful circus of materialistic bounty and creative freedom, delivering the goods as advertised. For Window’s director, Mamin, the French beacon of opportunity has, against all odds, turned out to be real, and he wants Parisians to know it.
The symbol of the cat is of interest as well. A traditional representation of curiosity, sexuality, freedom, magic, and imperiousness, the cat is bound to feel right at home in Paris, a city that boasts of all these attributes. But a black cat also represents mystery, danger, and bad luck. Whereas Mamin disallows this darker side in his unnaturally sunny Paris, director Cédric Klapisch plays with all the black cat’s connotations in his 1997 film When the Cat’s Away.
Because it takes an independent film more than two years to go from conception to the movie theaters, it is not possible that When the Cat’s Away could have intentionally been made to seem a sort of sequel to Window. But that is precisely how it works out. When the Cat’s Away takes a character very similar to the Parisienne in Window and follows her on a journey of self-discovery as she is led by her black cat through a window to an outside world. But this time the Paris girl is discovering her own city, warts and all, as though it were a foreign land.
When the Cat’s Away opens with a shot of a construction crane overhanging the rooftops of Paris. This is Paris in the full midst of change. Neighborhoods are in flux, physically and culturally. We see a multicultural Paris that may be frightening to tradition-bound Parisians. Immigrants, most of them Arab, are perhaps not much more welcome than the Russians trampling through the Paris apartment in Window. But the integration, however difficult, is perceived as a fait accompli in When the Cat’s Away. French society is a different world now, and this film invites the frightened Parisians locked in their apartments to come outside and experience it for all that it is worth. Will the struggle to adapt be worth it? Yes, responds this film, although the protagonist is hardly sure of that at any moment until the end.
In When the Cat’s Away, the protagonist, Chloe, is a young woman increasingly frustrated with the “cocoon” that she has built around herself. Although she does have some acquaintances, mostly female, she seems short on real relationships – no truly reliable friends, no family, no boyfriend. In what has become something of a cinematic cliché, she shares an apartment with a gay male. Although at one point, out of sheer frustration, she tries to seduce him, this measure proves a farcical failure. In fact, his robust social life only makes her feel all the more isolated. Chloe’s job, doing make-up for fashion models, only depresses her more; she makes other women appear glamorous, while feeling increasingly unappealing herself. Her life feels so drab, in fact, that she has named her black cat “Gris-Gris.”
As in the other film, the black cat motivates the drama. Gris-Gris disappears while in the care of a semi-professional cat sitter, a colorful little old lady called Renée. As soon as Chloe returns from a vacation so brief that it lasts all of three seconds onscreen, Renée shows Chloe the window through which Gris-Gris must have escaped. Out there is a Paris for which the shy Chloe feels ill prepared. But she sets aside her fear in order to embark on a singleminded quest to find Gris-Gris, no matter what.
Chloe is hardly alone in this effort, though. Renée, like a general in a strategy room, activates an impressive network of cat-sitters, widows, concierges, and unemployed persons, all in a grand search for the lost cat. A chain reaction of activity is set off, launching the obsessed Chloe into a string of minor adventures, some humorously charming, some painfully grim, some awkwardly amorous. A diverse community of old Parisiennes, students, young men of African and Arab descent, artists, singers, street people, gays and straights, all end up mobilized and working together toward a common goal. As the story rolls along like a snowball picking up more and more of the neighborhood, we begin to realize that the cat just isn’t worth it. In fact, it is the collectivist spirit, the unification of the neighborhood, and the new bond that Chloe is making with her diverse fellow Parisians that really matters.
Nothing about this is easy, however, for Chloe or her neighbors. Even as the neighborhood, which we recognize as the Bastille area around the new Opera House, undergoes urban renewal, these very improvements are causing tremendous upheavals and stress for many residents. We see buildings being torn down everywhere. Gentrification is dispossessing hundreds of persons per square block, some with nowhere obvious to go once evicted. The harshness of the problems does not begin to equal what we saw in the Russia of the “Window” film, of course. It is all a question of degree. Life is somewhat hard for everyone in Chloe’s Paris, but we get the feeling that the challenge is not insurmountable. By pulling together, the director implies, the people can meet the challenge and end up perhaps all the better for having endured the struggle.
Chloe’s main assistant in her cat search is an eager recruit named Djamel. Obviously smitten with Chloe, this Arab youth devotes himself totally to finding Gris-Gris. A simpleminded fellow of the Forrest Gump sort, Djamel does not realize the impossibility of winning over Chloe romantically. He earns our respect as well as our pity as he risks his life and the ridicule of his smarter yet crueler comrades by climbing rooftops in quest of Gris-Gris.
From their experiences in searching for the cat, Chloe and the others eventually become more caring and compassionate toward one another. One day, after having practically given up on finding Gris-Gris, Chloe brings some soup to an ill Renée. In the course of this good deed, some faint meowing is heard in Renée’s kitchen. Within moments, Gris-Gris – skinny but otherwise unharmed – is found behind the stove. It seems the cat had been stuck there for 12 days. The whole dragnet had ultimately been useless, since the cat had never actually gone anywhere. This obviously symbolizes the notion that what Chloe was really searching for was actually at home all along. There was no need to seek glamour and the unattainable when everything she needed was always right there in the form of her neighborhood community all along.
A changed person now, Chloe rushes to start a proper life. She resolves to have a real relationship with a kindhearted young widower whom she had always ignored while dating worthless dragueurs. She catches him just in time before he leaves the apartment building for good, having gotten evicted. Their prospective love affair begins in a burst of enthusiasm. Not quite everyone is happy about this, however. Poor Djamel sits in the corner café bemoaning his discovery that life is unfair. And of course it is. But the rest of the neighborhood is in good spirits. As the old ladies sing a cheery song with the line “ça, c’est Paris,” Chloe goes running joyfully through the streets, smiling radiantly in the sunshine. And hence, a story line replete with desperation, bleakness, and failures caused by a wayward cat who never really was lost concludes with a happy ending and considerable optimism.
It is worth noting that both Window to Paris and When the Cat’s Away have characters who regret the loss of the “Old Paris,” whatever that might have been, while striving for something better in a new and improving Paris. And I think that that has always been the case in real life. I sometimes miss the seemingly more leisurely “Old Paris” as it was in the days before the Pompidou Center, the Les Halles mall, and the Grands Travaux, magnificent as they are. An older generation misses the “Old Paris” of Hemingway with its musty little bookstores and smelly Gitane cigarettes everywhere. For that matter, people in the thirteenth century complained endlessly about the construction of Notre-Dame Cathedral and the imposed loss of half the homes and streets of the old town on the Ile de la Cité – “This never would have happened back in the twelfth century!” they moaned. And so forth for all time.
There is a particularly telling scene in When the Cat’s Away that passes by so quickly that it can easily be missed or forgotten, even though it merits our attention. While walking down a typical Bastille area street with Mme Renée, Chloe notices that one of her frequent employers (a clothing designer whose models Chloe makes up during fashion shoots) has opened up a new shop. Chloe drops in and chats briefly with the woman, who is all aglow about the wonderful opportunity to open this great new fashion shop and help revitalize the neighborhood. Unknown to her, Renée is right outside complaining about how her favorite old store, a musical instrument shop, got closed down and turned into this worthless “rag” shop. The irony is startling, and I think extremely accurate. The scene immediately brought to mind an incident that I had experienced a decade earlier when the neighborhood right next door to the Bastille’s, the Marais District, had its turn to go through an urban renewal. Even MTV did a program celebrating the revitalization of the Marais. It showed the hot new fashion designers who, unable to afford the rent where the old designers have their ateliers, were opening clothing shops all over the Marais. It looked wonderful, and strolling through the district I could feel the new energy. Then I stopped in one of the few remaining antiquarian shops that used to occupy so much of the quarter. As I perused the old lithographs for sale, the lady behind the cash register complained bitterly about how the Marais’s character was being destroyed by clothiers running out the antiquarians. “Le Marais a perdu son âme,” declared the woman – “The Marais district has lost its soul.” And there are people who, either despite or because of the massive progress that Paris embraces, probably feel that all of Paris has lost its soul. But when it comes to cities and neighborhoods, souls are a peculiar thing – one soul can be lost, but another can be gained, often at the same time. And, if the two films are to be believed, the soul of the new Paris may bring, along with huge new problems, a new hope for a more open and inclusive society.