Paris Calligrammes

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Paris Calligrammes is German filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger’s love letter to the city where she came of age, and her explorations of her own artistic growth, fuelled by bookstores, jazz clubs, workshops and cafés.

“Calligramme” is the term coined by Guillaume Apollinaire for his poems featuring stunning visual typography. Like a series of calligrammes, this film is divided individual poetic segments, covering the period from Ottinger’s arrival in Paris in 1962 to her return to Germany seven years later.

In the tradition of flanerie, Ottinger writes in her director’s statement, she takes us through the city, turning her lens on decisive personal and political focal points. They include her time at a legendary bookstore, the studio where she learned the art of etching, her embrace of the French New Wave through the Cinémathèque Française, and the cafés and streets where personal artistic ferment bled into political action against the war in Algeria—and, ultimately, to the protests of May 1968.

Ottinger begins with archival footage re-creating the night she arrived in Paris—picked up by five men who looked like they’d stepped out of a film noir. Although Paris Calligrammes was filmed nearly 60 years after the events of that night, Ottinger captures the sense of wonder and belonging she found as a young artist in Paris. She revisits her influences and admits to her failings—like an inability to fully understand the role of colonialism.

In less capable hands, Paris Calligrammes could have been a self-indulgent meditation on youth. Instead, Ottinger—who appears only occasionally in archival photos—has created a personal film that connects her own artistic awakening to the broader social issues of the day. Combining contemporary and archival footage, she evokes the past without succumbing to nostalgia. (Ulrike Ottinger, 2020, Germany/France, 131 min.) In German and French with English subtitles