L’Amour existe, 1960

The sound of a rattling, mechanical alarm bell seemingly ushers a silent wave of anonymous, early morning commuters heading towards metropolitan Paris at the crack of dawn as they follow the ritualistic procession of informal queues leading to the subway station, pack into crowded, unconditioned trains, transfer through a coordinated maze of mass transportation, traverse rain soaked sidewalks and intersections, and navigate through high-traffic streets. The chaotic montage culminates in a dizzying shot of the dispiriting visual monotony of the impersonal cityscape from the window of a passing commuter train. From the upstairs terrace window of an unidentified home, an off-screen narrator (Jean-Loup Reynold) witnesses the fleeting sight a passing train and begins to recount the familiar (and haunted) images of his youth in the suburban town of Courbevoie. Once laid to ruins in the aftermath of war, a new and insidiously consuming operation – the imperative of urban assimilation – now devastates the architectural, social, and cultural landscape of the working-class region as old buildings are demolished to make room for new, high population density residential construction and popular sources of low-cost communal entertainment, such as matinees at the local cinema, become increasingly nonexistent, statistically relocating to the hypersaturated venues of Paris. However, it is not only structures, but also people who are increasingly displaced by rapid industrial expansion, as humanity becomes valued through levels of productivity, and the elderly are relegated to the role of inutile pensioners searching for inclusion and purpose in the new modern society (in a wry shot of a group of elderly citizens passing idle time by sitting on a park statue that ironically celebrates their role as nurturers of the younger generation). Meanwhile, an idyllic shot of a wooded park that continues to be deforested for high profit, real estate speculation is contrasted against the subhuman conditions of migrant worker “apartments” in a nearby shantytown (juxtaposed against of an advertising banner that boasts of all rentals as including all modern conveniences) as residents evacuate in the wake of a rapidly spreading fire. Inevitably, the figurative tale of two cities emerges, as the image of postwar Paris becomes a complex portrait of ambitious policy and human disaffection.

Maurice Pialat creates an acerbic and unsentimental, yet hauntingly poetic and profoundly engaging exposition on urbanization, alienation, reconstruction and cultural transformation in L’Amour existe. Using parallel imagery of large-scale industrial and (often empty) public spaces, Pialat intrinsically correlates the alienating and demoralizing toll of rapid modernization: the uniform tracts of suburban houses that represent an illusory, yet attainable working-class measure of success; the shot of a passenger train traversing the horizon against a foregrounding image of a derelict railway car that has been transformed into a squatter’s hovel; the compromised structural integrity of pre-fabricated materials used for large-scale urban residential construction that is repeated in the image of the primitive, tinderbox construction of crude shantytowns near Paris (with the dream of a better life figuratively disintegrating in flames); the enumeration of statistical data that reflects a nationwide pattern of declining recreation and education that corresponds to the rise in abstract measures of productivity and trends toward metropolitan centralization. Furthermore, note an earlier image of automated dredging equipment that cuts to a (reverse direction) traveling shot of row seating at an empty cinema that visually suggests the inverse relationship between industrial production and leisure activity: a similar idea that is later reinforced in the tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition of artificially hurried, rushing commuters against an anonymous woman’s tranquil swim in an empty pool. It is this recurring theme of impersonal institutionalization and conformity that invariably propels the thoughtful and elegiac tone of the film: the cultural trauma of depopulation, marginalization, and loss of identity in the face of delusive prosperity, socially regressive national policy, and dehumanized progress.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.