If you’ve ever been to Paris, the chances are that you’ve passed through the Gare du Nord. It’s said to be the busiest railway station in Europe, welcoming around 190 million travellers each year. That’s a whole lot of people. It’s also the eponymous subject of a new film by the French filmmaker Claire Simon, which was recently screened at the 57th BFI London Film Festival.
I watched the film during a recent holiday in France (to set the scene for you, in a quirky little cinema in the southern French town of Avignon. I’m a project manager at Creative, and with a degree in French I always love to visit the country and to catch French cinema when I can). Here are a few of my thoughts on the film.
Part fiction and part fact, this “docufiction” focuses on a handful of characters, whose lives intersect at the station. We see the protagonists’ interactions, always with the gare as the backdrop. There is romance, crime, illness, family drama, a political protest… and ultimately the film becomes a portrait of this public place, a microcosm of Paris itself.
I’m in two minds about the result. On one hand, I found it compelling and I still remember the characters quite vividly, but on the other, I felt as though the film as a whole doesn’t quite hang together.
I think my uncertainty stems from the fact that it all feels a bit disjointed. But perhaps that is the point.
Ultimately, the station is the central character, and the disjointed feeling the film has is kind of inherent in the nature of the place. People come and go, and apart from those who work there, the station sees them only in passing. The travellers’ experiences come together to make up a whole, a mosaic of different lives and people and shared moments, but the individual stories always remain fragmented.
Viewed in this way, then, the film could be seen as a clever and accurate depiction of this unique environment. The disjointed nature is appropriate.
I’d say, if you are used to “foreign cinema”, you will not be surprised by the way this film is put together. For those more familiar with more mainstream films, however, the film may seem a little unresolved and “unslick” – but this shouldn’t be a reason not to see it.
Let’s be honest, we all like to people watch, and I’ve indulged in this activity at the Gare du Nord before, killing time before catching trains. While watching this film, I had the sensation that I was doing this again, but that this time I had the unusual ability to see behind the faces sharing the public space with me.
It was not a surprise, therefore, when I passed through the station on my way home a couple of days after watching the film, not only to see it all with different eyes, but to people watch with renewed vengeance. Not being given the insight into their lives this time, which the film had afforded me, I couldn’t help but fabricate this myself. The stories unfolding unbeknownst to me, the snippets of lives and relationships, and the daily concerns of the travellers around me – all fed into my imagination.
Naturally, my travel companion and I also found ourselves getting a little overexcited upon spotting specific locations from the film, and couldn’t help but look out for the protagonists.
The trouble is, I might just have to watch the film again now, to see afresh the things I’ve now just seen in real life. This could go on for some time… I think I might have to draw the line at some point!