In 2002 I was mid-way through a two-year tenure at an organisation based on Avenue de Messine, just a stone’s – or, as we will soon find out, a cobblestone’s – throw from Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement.
Avenue de Messine has all the hallmarks of Haussmann’s Paris: it is a wide, tree-lined boulevard flanked by elegant but somewhat identikit buildings that mix and match residential dwellings with office space. It also happens to lack the hustle, bustle and vibrancy of the city’s more high-profile arteries. Automobile traffic there is always sparse, giving drivers the extra impetus to put their foot down and make the occasional pedestrian crossings potentially lethal for anyone who has the misfortune to be on foot. And it was Avenue de Messine that was momentarily closed to all-comers to form the backdrop to the May 1968 riot scenes in Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie The Dreamers, which were filmed there on a quiet August day and August night in, yes, 2002.
Granted, there’s nothing particularly novel about being in Paris and spotting a film being made. However, enjoying an office-window view of the clock being turned back 34 years in the space of an afternoon was a fascinating experience. The lone cars to have ignored the A4 warnings displayed on lampposts were towed away. Benches were uprooted and replaced with older models, as were the ornate metal grids that sit around the base of tree-trunks across the city. Parking meters were hidden. A 2002-vintage bank was boarded up and airbrushed out of reality. Then a procession of vintage Citroëns, Renaults and Peugeots arrived, driven by their proud owners. And finally, the pièce de résistance: thousands of possibly hand-crafted polystyrene cobblestones were tipped out onto the street by a delivery van, ready to be hurled at the police/authorities by the student demonstrators.
Meanwhile the main cast-members were hard at work in a nearby building filming some interior scenes, and outside a small army of extras reported to a desk which had been set up on the pavement. They were allocated their 1968 clothing, had their 21st-century hairstyles coiffed out of them and went to sit, smoke and drink coffee on makeshift seating a little further down the avenue, biding time until they were to be called on to riot against the Establishment.
Observing the people, artefacts and surroundings as they were sucked into the past, the colour scheme changed from bright, vibrant shades to a palette of browns, off-whites, greys and blacks. Suddenly the summer sun didn’t seem to be shining quite as brightly. But strangely, in much the same way as a black and white photograph puts greater emphasis on shadow and light, giving whole new dimensions to the subject matter, Avenue de Messine also instantly gained in character and personality; for once, there was a bit of life about the street.
My working day drew to a close as the cameras and crew relocated outside for the night-time riot scenes. I reluctantly left the office and my second-floor vantage point, whilst reminding myself that one thing the film didn’t need was a character wearing 2002 dress staring down from an office window. Walking past the piles of cobblestones, I pedantically wondered whether their airborne trajectory would be anything like that of their rock-solid counterparts, but reckoned researchers in white coats had probably already looked into the issue and that it was probably long-solved.
Returning to work the next day, just about every trace of it having been 1968 for a few hours had been scraped, moved or driven away. 2002 was back out in force and Avenue de Messine once again became its succession of interchangeable buildings and drivers in a hurry. I made a mental note to go and see the film when it came out but never did, so sadly I have never witnessed the end-product. Writing about it now though, I’m beginning to wish I had, if only to see how convincing those polystyrene cobblestones actually looked on the silver screen.
Outside of his day job, Tim is also a talented musician and songwriter. He can be found at http://www.myspace.com/drbrochet and will also be playing a concert at the La Tactique bar on rue Pascal, in the 5th arrondissement of Paris on Friday September the 18th.
Send Your Paris Polaroid! The beauty of the Polaroid was that it captured an instant. Such pictures were celebrations of the emotion of a moment, but like memories, Polaroids faded over time. In this series I am aiming to compile a selection of these Paris instants for posterity. If you have a memory of a Paris instant you would like to share, please send it to me and I will publish it here. A photo (which I will transform into Polaroid form) would be a bonus but is not a necessity (I can find one!). If you have a site, a project or a business to promote, send me the link and I will add a mention to your post!