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Automobile ? November 2003

C’était un Rendezvous review from Automobile, November 2003

Rendezvous Revealed

Claude Lelouch's little film has big secrets.

"In the canon of car films, the Holy Trinity is John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix (1966), Lee H. Katzin's Le Mans (1971) with Steve McQueen, and Claude Lelouch's C'était un rendezvous (1976). Some may argue that The Italian Job, Ronin, and Bullitt should be included, but the cars in those films are peripheral to their main stories. The cars in the Trinity are the real stars, with the actors and story lines taking second billing.

Of the three, Rendezvous has reached near mythic status, mainly because of the sheer mystery surrounding it. The film is eight minutes and fifty seconds long. The "plot" is a bumper's-eye view of an assault on the city streets of Paris, prior to a rendezvous with a girl on the steps of Sacré-Coeur. The soundtrack opens with a beating heart.

That's the stuff we know. But who was the driver? How did he do it? Was it staged? And what type of car was driven? Since the film's release, Lelouch has refused to discuss it, and, as a result, legends abound. One claims that Formula I driver Jean-Pierre Beltoise did the run in a Matra Le Mans sports prototype. Another says the driver was Jacques Laffite in a Ferrari 275GTB. And one says Lelouch himself was held responsible and arrested for dangerous driving, and screenings were stopped. Pirated prints would be shown from time to time, traded and viewed by enthusiasts like contraband. In 1992, Pyramid Film and Video released a murky tape priced at fifty bucks a pop, making it one of the most expensive videos around on a dollar-per-minute basis.

So, what are the answers? Lelouch's production company, Les Films 13 in Paris, denied interview requests but did send us Lelouch's writings on the making of the movie. His inspiration came when he found himself running late for an appointment and drove across Paris like a madman to be on time. The idea came to life in 1976, after Lelouch had finished directing Si c'était à refaire (If I Had to Do It All Over Again). At the end of the shoot, he had nine minutes or so of film left over and some time before he had to turn in his equipment. He had enough footage remaining for one take.

City officials rejected Lelouch's application to close the necessary streets. Undaunted, he decided to do it without permission and take his chances, reducing the risks by shooting at 5:30 on a morning in August, the month when almost all of Paris shuts down for vacation. The most dangerous part of the route would be the ticket-window area at the Louvre, where there was zero visibility at the courtyard's exit onto the Rue de Rivoli. An assistant, Elie Chouraqui, stood watch over the exit with a walkie-talkie.

The shoot went off as planned. With no signal from Chouraqui as he approached the exit of the Louvre's courtyard, Lelouch floored it and roared through the gates. After the rendezvous, Lelouch headed back to collect Chouraqui and found him fiddling with the walkietalkie. "What's up?" Lelouch asked. "It's this piece of crap!" replied the assistant, pointing to the walkie-talkie. "It broke down at the start of the take!"

Lelouch has described the audience reaction when Rendezvous was first released: "People were exhilarated by the action but morally outraged by the method. I can't say I blame them." Lelouch confessed to being the driver: "Of course. It was my film, and I was fully prepared to take the risks." He was also arrested for his exploits. "They took a look at the film, and the chief of police called me in;" Lelouch recounted. "He read me a list of all the offenses I'd committed. It was never-ending. When he finished, he gave me a black look and asked for my driver's license. He contemplated it for a few moments, then gave it back with a large smile on his face. He said, `I promised I would take your license, but I didn't say for how long.' I was stupefied. It was a symbolic punishment. Then he added, `My children love your little film.'"

As for the car? No one's talking."

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Don't try this chez soi: If, like many fans, you're obsessed with Rendezvous, you can view a map of the Paris route at automobilemag.com