Car fans love talking car chases. You’ve got to love the pioneering work of Hollywood legend John Frankenheimer, who was sticking cameras in places they weren’t meant to fit when the Go-Pro was but a faint glimmer in someone’s eye (see The French Connection and the later Ronin for evidence).
I’ll always love the wanton cruelty and choreography of The Italian Job. And lately, Paul Greengrass has proven expert at organising mechanical mayhem across four continents in the Bourne series.
But C’etait un Rendez-vous, the coolest car chase ever committed to celluloid, isn’t strictly speaking a car chase at all. There’s a big difference. The work of French film director Claude Lelouch (Un Homme et Une Femme, Vivre pour Vivre), Rendez-vous is a film that has both benefited from the eternal afterglow of the internet, but also had some of the edges buffed off its enigma because it’s now viewable anytime, anywhere.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the only way you’d get to see it was by swapping gnarly VHS tapes, although late-night cinemas that specialised in the cult, the odd and sometimes even banned films (A Clockwork Orange, the odd Italian giallo horror flick) might sneak it on to their schedules.
OK, so not much really happens. But it happens brilliantly, and extremely stylishly. All we see is Paris from the driver’s POV, as he hurls a car through the city’s glorious mid-1970s streetscapes, past the Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Concorde, Louvre, and the Champs-Elysées, overtaking humbler traffic, en route to a meeting with his lover outside Sacré Coeur.
As the years went by, various myths accrued to Rendez-vous, many of which Lelouch passively encouraged simply by failing to deny them. Was it only made because the director had 1000ft of 35mm film left over and he couldn’t bear not to use it? Possibly.
Some facts have emerged, though. The director owned a Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9, whose compliant suspension lent itself to filming duty. A gyro-stabilised camera was mounted to the front bumper. Its engine might have been huge but the Mercedes didn’t sound sufficiently evocative, so Lelouch overdubbed a Ferrari 275 GTB (good move).
For years, viewers assumed the pilote was a professional racing driver friend of the director; now it seems that it was Lelouch himself at the wheel. There was just one spotter, whose ability to warn the driver about possible obstacles was hampered by a failing walkie-talkie. And the lady he meets at the end was Lelouch’s then girlfriend.
Rendez-vous is a brilliantly irresponsible, impossibly atmospheric eight minutes and 30 seconds of cinema. Forty years on, its impact is stronger than ever, simply because it could absolutely never happen again (not least because no capital city in 2016 is this quiet at 5.30am).