Next week it’s going to be all about Paris in the Belle Époque. From approximately 1890 to 1914, as France found itself cashed up and relatively combat-free, its capital splashed out on everything from the dazzling diversions of the boulevard to the rarefied pleasures of the salon. The cultural sphere turned out new ideas, forms and sensations at a rate which mimicked the ceaseless flow of products and novelties in the booming consumerist-led economy.
Belle Époque Paris is a conjunction of time and place I find difficult to stay away from for long. Above all I’m fascinated by the fact that an era remembered largely as a time of carefree merriment with a can-can soundtrack could also accommodate the utter bedevilling strangeness of a cross-dressing novelist, “the sandwich man of the Beyond”, a self-proclaimed king, a scandalous poet and all the other Bohemians with their equivocal relations with the mainstream.
To get you in the mood, I offer you this curio from 1947, which collects footage from Paris in and around 1900. So you get not just the Eiffel Tower, but Gustave Eiffel himself, along with women in trousers, original Art Nouveau interiors, another glimpse of La Belle Otero (“beautiful, disturbing and disturbed”) as well as dancer Cléo de Mérode and writer Colette. Director Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima Mon Amour) is listed as assistant supervisor of this film which was released as Paris 1900. The sound deteriorates towards the end, and the poor quality of the original footage isn’t aided by the filter of the later compilation, but the subject matter more than compensates.