Nadja à Paris / Nadja in Paris
The titular Nadja is young woman (twenty-something) Nadja Tesich, a student at Cité Universitaire in Paris. She is there to write a thesis on Proust, but that is just an excuse to be there and to explore Paris.
In the credits we see that Nadja Tesich herself is responsible for the text. I can imagine Rohmer with his tape recorder and Nadja talking about her student life in Paris. Or perhaps Nadja actually wrote a short essay. I don't want to insist too strongly on the fictional nature of Nadja since this film appears to be a documentary about a real student using her own words, however we'll see that Rohmer uses the same method of adapting real people to characters in his films, La collectionneuse being the prime example.
Nadja is an American and a Yogoslavian, born in Belgrade, she says. But she is American by adoption. Which could either mean she has adopted America or she was really adopted by American parents. I'm not sure which. In either case, today Nadja might identify herself as a Serbian-American.
The narrative jumps from one subject to the next. Nadja introduces herself. Tells us that Cité Universitaire has a relaxed atmosphere like an American high school, then she mentions ethnic diversity (her narration is over images of African men walking through the school grounds), then she starts talking about the lawn and how it's not forbidden to walk or sit on it. She makes no attempt to organize her thoughts or to develop her observations. These are the facts as they occur to me, no fact is any more important than the other, she seems to be saying. The context of this narration is Nadja going for a jog. Perhaps this is her morning routine: she gets up and goes for a run in long pants.
This is 1964 and I wonder just how much Nadja's remark about Cité Universitaire being home to people from all over the world, and showing images of African men, is a reference to the growing civil rights movement in the US. Nadja doesn't say anything about the US or what's going on there. She doesn't even say where she lives in the US. These details are unimportant in her Parisian crucible. For Nadja she is in a time outside of normal time. This is a characteristic of Rohmer's characters who all seem to be on holiday, or in between life's grand phases.
The danger of being at Cité Universitaire for Nadja is that it is so comfortable and provides everything she needs: newspapers, books, entertainment in the form of theatre and cinema. Rohmer shows us a poster for Le diabolique Docteur Mabuse, Fritz Lang's 1960 film. Lang was a favorite of the nouvelle vague directors who at Cahiers du Cinéma praised his work. His most famous films are Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). He appeared in Godard's Le mepris (1963).
Right after showing us the film poster, Rohmer shows us a couple of students rehearsing a play by Lope de Vega (1562-1635). Later Rohmer (after the release of Ma nuit chez Maud) will be accused of presenting filmed theatre. In fact critiques (dismissals?) of Rohmer's work will describe it as talky, literary, or (the worst) "filmed theatre" something that Rohmer in his Filmic Issues conversation takes pains to demonstrate the inaccuracy of viewing his films this way.
Nadja is only five minutes (by métro) from the Latin Quarter. Despite the self-contained comfort of Cité Universitaire she goes into Paris, ostensibly to work on her thesis on Proust at the Sorbonne, but as she says, her visits to the Sorbonne are infrequent and brief. She prefers to visit antique shops, browse in the open-air bookshops, and lounge about in Parisian cafés watching people. She remarks that Parisians like to linger in cafés for hours. The slow life. Idling. Isn't it at those times when we are quiet and not doing anything that we are truly alive? Or maybe what I mean by "truly alive" is that we are most conscious of ourselves. (However, in La collectionneuse Rohmer appears to offer a counter-example in Adrien who is quiet and inactive precisely to erase himself, to become nothing, to not even think.) When we are busy, absorbed in work, we are unable to self reflect. If we spend most of our time in activity, and not an equal amount in quiet lazying about, then how can we know ourselves?
This is Nadja's Paris. She shows us Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the part of Paris that first attracted her. She passes the Café de Flore at the corner of Boulevard St. Germain and Rue St. Benoit, the café where (possibly?) Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir would meet to discuss their existentialist ideas. Nadja mentions Juliette Gréco, a popular singer and resident of Saint-Germain-des-Prés who evidently was part of the bohemian social scene. I had never heard of Juliette Gréco and so had to look her up while I was making these notes. I found an interesting tidbit that links Gréco to Raymond Queneau, a writer that I admire and who I will (no doubt) write more about in subsequent volumes (of this work). [Footnote: Also, my novella, My Night at Gwen's features Queneau, linking him to Godard's film Bande à part, a film I'll write about in volume two.] Queneau was responsible for the lyrics of Gréco's chanson "Si tu t'imagines." Another connection to books I've already mentioned in this text is that Gréco sang the title song to Otto Preminger's filmed adaptation (1958) of Françoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse. Since I'm listing connections, Godard's Bande à part connects Queneau (through a reference to his novel Odile) to a novel titled Nadja by André Breton (1928). But a comparison between Rohmer's Nadja and Breton's would be an imaginative one and more properly the subject of a work of fiction (than of criticism).
Mercredi, 1 juin. Yesterday afternoon, after I'd written the notes above, I watched the rest of Nadja à Paris. Here's what I remember: While she was first drawn to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, she also likes Monteparnasse where she hangs out at café with older men, bohemians, writers, painters, who talk to her about modern art. She enjoys talking for hours with these men (who are not burdened with the "petty concerns of students") and she learns from them, but she insists her opinions remain her own. "They don't influence me," she says. And to prove this she goes to a modern art gallery. She views scultures and interacts with a piece of art that looks like a grid of bobbing knobs that chime like bells as she paws at them.
But the world of modern art and bohemian cafés don't satisfy her it seems; she prefers the working-class Belleville. It's only in Belleville that we finally hear actual dialog, when she is in a Belleville café. She has a chat with a man standing next to her at the bar. She is having a glass of red wine.
I should mention a brief scene that has always stood out each time I watch this film: Nadja is chatting with a couple of Americans at a sidewalk café. Beneath Nadja's voiceover I can hear what the men say in English, "I want to go home with you," says one of them. The men flirt with Nadja. She's enjoying it, or perhaps just tolerating it with good humor. One of the men grabs her and forces Nadja to sit on his lap. I wonder if Nadja knows these men or if she had just met them. Then the man in the background glances up and look directly into the camera and grins. Immediately the scene cuts. It's the Feuillade effect. The best Feuillade effect in this film is an old man in a market who slowly turns and stares with one great eye into the camera. The expression on his face is unclassifiable. It's as if he's trying to sneak a glance at the camera, but doesn't want to be caught. But there is also a hint of accusation in the eye. Perhaps it's the "evil eye"?
Little fictions. I wrote yesterday afternoon some notes for a story. I want to put Nadja into a story. This little film is a window into a world, one that I would crawl through, the Paris of 1964. Nadja's freedom to wander, to explore, to go where she wants, to do what she wants. Perhaps I want to be Nadja, just for a while. To relive that part of my life experience when I was twenty and wandering Europe with a backpack and nothing to do but wander, read, and think. I write, in part, to travel in time and space. The keyboard is a time machine that focuses my concentration so that I can transport myself through the power of imagination into different times and locations.
Connections. Near the end of the film (as Nadja wanders further afield) she ends up at the Buttes Chaumont, a sixty-plus acre park on the outskirts of Paris. Nadja points out that the rocks and streams are not natural, they are man-made. But the artificiality doesn't bother her. Rohmer will return with his camera to the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the early 80s when he films La femme de l'aviateur.
The last scene. It's evening and Nadja walks over what appears to be an overpass. A highway with cars whizzing underneath is below her. This is not the lovely Paris of cafés and open-air bookstores and markets, this is modern, industrial suburbia. But Nadja is crossing over. As night falls I get a sense that Nadja's time in Paris is drawing to an end. She will return to the US, but she won't be the same Nadja. I can sense the sadness in her awareness that this is the best time in her life (perhaps). For Nadja, the future is a unwritten and therefore less loveable than what she has in the moment. But time passes. She can't erect a damn to hold back the inexorable flow of time carrying her forward and away from her Paris.