It is the early morning in the Paris of the nineteen-seventies. A driver heads up the Champs Elysées in his unseen car at insanely dangerous speed, and proceeds to rush through the streets of the city slowing down as little as possible, no matter the level of traffic or geography of the streets ahead, not to mention the residents of the French capital who have risen from bed early as pedestrians. What could possibly be the hurry?
C'était un Rendez-vous was a film that became the stuff of legend for many years. Consisting of the view from the front of a sports car, director Claude Lelouch apparently strapped a camera on the vehicle and left it running as the car speeds along the city highways and back alleys. Lasting just under ten minutes, it feels shorter, such is the incredible momentum of the action, mesmerising the viewer with the images zipping by.
Not only is the film itself legendary, but stories have grown up around it, too. Is it true that Lelouch was arrested on its first showing in a Parisian cinema for dangerous driving? After all, the evidence is there and plain to see: you may consider it as much a miracle that nobody was hurt as it was that we never hear the wail of a police car siren rise on the soundtrack. And just who was the mysterious driver - Lelouch himself, or a famed Formula One racing star, understandably wishing to remain anonymous? Some say the man behind the wheel is an Italian taxi driver. And what make is the car, anyway? It must be an expensive sports model, judging by the thunderous noise of the engine.
That roaring engine is all you hear throughout; well, that and the odd beep of an indignant car horn. From the sight of the Arc de Triomphe gradually looming larger on the screen to the less well known streets that the driver ends up in, you're riveted. He ignores every red light, narrowly avoids more than one fellow road user, and even mounts the pavement to get around a large vehicle blocking his way - pedestrians beware. And let's not mention the sundry pigeons who risk life and winged limb by being in the wrong place (i.e. the middle of the road) at the wrong time.
Somehow you know there will be no crash, but a few viewers have claimed the car is not going as fast as you might think, going as far as to retrace the journey to check. No matter, there is a title card at the start which states that no speeded up camera tricks have been used, and you will believe the appearance of high speed is no illusion. You can't really commend Lelouch for staging such a death-defying stunt, despite it being held at a time when hardly anyone is about - there were certainly a good few hardy folks venturing out to walk their dogs or pick up a pint of milk or morning newspaper - but you have to admire his verve: the best ideas can be the simplest. And what is the driver so desperate to see at the end of his excursion? Let's just say it's a typically French denouement.
[Spirit Level Film have now released the movie on DVD, to celebrate the film's 30th anniversary. Once again another of our underground classics crosses in to the mainstream. They just take all the fun out of it...]