Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 1: SOUND
Chapter 11. Paris on Sea
Paris is a hard place to leave.
When I moved to Paris from Los Angeles at the end of 1989, Marie-Dominique and I lived for a few months in her tiny apartment on Place Dauphine, on the Île de la Cité.
That studio was my decompression chamber. Like a diver ascending from the depths, I needed time to adjust to my new environment. It looked out on an archetypal Paris space, a small park with a grove of chestnut trees. André Breton called it “one of the most profoundly secluded places I know. Whenever I happen to be there, I feel the desire to go somewhere else gradually ebbing out of me. I have to struggle against myself to get free from a gentle, overinsistent, and, finally, crushing embrace.”
Place Dauphine from our balcony
By the time we moved to rue de l’Odéon, free for the first time to enjoy the city in comfort, I found that, from the sixth floor, Paris was a different place.
In Place Dauphine, we belonged to the area. Our first-floor windows made us extras in its never-ending spectacle—especially if we stepped out of the shower before the curtains were drawn. Rue de l’Odéon was quite different. Here, Paris provided the show. Taking morning coffee on the balcony, I became just another spectator.
North, the gray turnip-like domes of Sacré-Coeur crowned the butte of Montmartre. South, just beyond the Théâtre de l’Odéon, rose the foliage of the Luxembourg Gardens. Less than a kilometer to the east, the towers of Notre Dame floated on an ocean of metal roofs. On Sunday evenings, its bells—the bells of Quasimodo!—tolled solemnly over the city of François Villon. It wasn’t hard to imagine turn-of-the-century criminal genius Fantômas, in evening dress and black domino mask, slipping into one of those dormer windows left so invitingly ajar, or oneself as the young man of Jacques Rivette’s Paris Nous Appartient—Paris Belongs to Us—strolling across the roof of the Théâtre du Châtelet, just on the other side of the Seine, an iconic image for me from the moment it appeared in Cahiers du Cinema.
Paris Nous Appartient. Ajym Films/Les Films du Carrosse/Merlyn Films.
Rue de l’Odéon was so narrow that one could look straight into the apartments opposite. Curtains are rare in Paris. The instrument of privacy is the persienne, a wooden shutter that can be bolted in winter or when the apartment is empty, or half-closed to shade a room against the sun. But as nobody bothered much with persiennes once the weather turned warm, the apartments opposite were as open to us as the rooms in a doll’s house. I could read the names on the books scattered around the floor of the apartment two floors down and watch the maids of our richer neighbors as they plumped the pillows of the beds every morning or spent early evenings laying the table for twelve in preparation for twice-weekly dinner parties.
Summer light streaming into our apartment emphasized the stresses and subsidences inflicted by two centuries of gravity. There wasn’t a horizontal line or a flat plane anywhere. Rooms tapered, low ceilings intersecting window frames at odd angles. Floors rippled, dipped, and rose unexpectedly so that a rolling ball would zigzag for yards, coming to rest in a far corner as if tired of searching. Paris reversed entropy. Here, all things tended not to a condition of rest but to perpetual motion.