The German artist and filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger, whose work is not nearly as well distributed in the United States as it ought to be, is not generally known for sentimentality. Her long, searching films are elaborately costumed and visionary not-quite allegories of queer radical feminism. Representative titles include “Madame X: An Absolute Ruler” (1982), “The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press” (1984) and “Joan of Arc of Mongolia” (1992). She can’t be blamed for getting at least a little wistful, though, in her new “Paris Calligrammes,” an autobiographical documentary. It’s about Paris, after all — her Paris, first experienced in the early 1960s.
After the film opens with footage that Ottinger shot in the Paris of today, we’re swept back in time, aurally and visually: Notably by the singers Juliette Gréco and Jacques Dutronc, and a clip from Marcel Carné’s immortal 1945 “Les Enfants du Paradis.” But “Paris Calligrammes” consistently mixes what’s familiar to the Francophile with much that isn’t. The movie takes its title from a bookshop Ottinger frequented as a young woman. She had been enchanted by French culture growing up in occupied Germany, and sought out a connection home once she landed in the City of Lights to study. The bookstore Calligrammes, run by the German-born Fritz Picard, served German expatriates. It was a place where, Ottinger puts it, “The Dadaists encountered the Situationists.” It became a formative aesthetic home for the young artist.
Ottinger’s account of a reading at the store by Walter Mehling is one of the movie’s high points. The filmmaker has what seems like a torrent of anecdotes and attendant ideas to impart, but the movie never feels rushed. She created three different narrations, those in French and English read by the actors Fanny Ardant and Jenny Agutter, and one in German, read by Ottinger herself. This U.S. release features the Agutter narration. This reading is as crucial in conveying the mood of Ottinger’s story as the film’s unhurried pace is.
We see Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Signoret and Nico, but also now-obscure figures including Raymond Duncan, the dancer Isadora Duncan’s eccentric brother, who stalked the Paris streets in a toga and philosophized at the famed cafe Les Deux Magots. Ottinger’s account of the riot-provoking 1960s Paris premiere of Jean Genet’s play “The Screens” emphasizes how that production’s use of costuming and makeup influenced Ottinger’s own future film aesthetic.
Ottinger also remembers alienation: Her account of a strike in May 1968 is less-than utopian. And she is pointed when recalling how when the activist Daniel Cohn-Bendit was agitating in Paris, it wasn’t just the right wing that dismissed him with the categorization “a German Jew.”
When she ends the movie by putting Édith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” on the soundtrack, you may think Ottinger has finally succumbed to the sentimentality she’s kept mostly in check. But wait. Just like the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, “Paris Calligrammes” has a mid-credits stinger — this one about Piaf’s dedication of the song.
Not rated. In English, German and French, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes. Watch through Film Forum’s Virtual Cinema.
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