Until a decade ago, C'était Un Rendezvous was the stuff of legend, a film with bona fide mythical status. All nine minutes of it. Between 1976, when it was made, and 2003, when it was officially released on DVD, pirate videos had been changing hands for £50 or so, and rumours about the production were rife. Did this person really strap a camera to the front of his car and hurtle from one end of Paris (Porte Dauphine) to the other (the Basilica Sacre Coeur) in nine minutes? Was it in fact F1 driver Jacques Laffite, in a Ferrari 275 GTB? Was the film's director Claude Lelouch really arrested after its first screening?
Rendezvous features no dialogue, no music, no artificial lighting (well, other than headlights and streetlamps). All you see is the French capital whizzing past at a sickening speeds; all you hear is the offensively loud roar of the engine and the screech of the tyres. Making a mockery of the car chases in Bullitt and The French Connection, the driver zooms through the city at dawn, getting away with a handful of near misses (two people, a couple of buses, a mini), with little regard, it seems, for human or pigeon life. Multiple red lights are ignored. It's as reckless and irresponsible as filmmaking gets. In other words, an utter thrill-ride.
In 2003, documentary filmmaker and Rendezvous fan Richard Symons contacted Lelouch, and after six months of talks (Lelouch said he didn't blame people for being morally outraged), persuaded him the film should be re-released for the benefit of a new generation of speed-junkies. Now, it's been remastered for blu-ray, 21st century technology and home cinema systems breathing new life into this beautifully analogue artefact. “It resonated against these times, because it captures a certain feeling of freedom and liberation,” says Symons, who praises Lelouch for capturing an experience we'd all like to go through, if only we had bigger balls, expert driving skills, and a liberal approach to The Highway Code. “God forbid he'd have killed someone,” he says. “Then the film would quite rightly have been buried and never heard of, and he'd be cast out and castigated. But he didn't. He did it, and he pulled it off.”
The facts. Lelouch had 300 metres of film (nine minutes worth) left after shooting Catherine Deneuve romantic drama Si C’était à Refaire, and didn't want to waste it. A stickler for punctuality, he'd recently sped across town to make an appointment on time, and thought it would be a blast to capture the adrenaline on celluloid. He had the idea for some time and calculated a route, but decided spontaneously to do it one August night. “Come tomorrow morning,” he instructed his cinematographer and key grip. “We meet Porte Dauphine. We're going to do this!” He told them it would be one take and one take only, which was all he had film for, and they'd either get it or they wouldn't. There would be no second chances. Besides, it was too risky to attempt twice. “We'll have the cinema gods with us or we won't,” he said.
They did it at 5.30am. Lelouch always wakes at 5am anyway: at that time, “you get the feeling that the world belongs to you,” he said in a short film retracing the journey a few years ago. He wanted to use his own car, a Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9, rather than a sports car, as the Merc's hydro-pneumatic suspension would provide a smoother journey for the camera strapped to the front. In the car with him, his very trusting cinematographer and grip had a remote to control the aperture. As a precautionary measure – if you can call it that – Lelouch had asked a stuntman for advice, explaining that the only way he'd be able to complete the journey in time would be to run a lot of red lights. “He explained to me that there was little risk of an accident,” Lelouch told Symons recently. “When you get to a red light at 150 or 200kph, if you don’t see anything to the right or the left then nothing is coming - for there to be a risk there would have to be another crazy person doing this at the same speed.” So very reassuring.
At 5.30am, he went for his life. By their count, 18 red lights were obliterated. At one point, says Lelouch, he hit 230kph (142mph). He simply prayed "for the eyesight and reflexes to react" in the event of a vehicle or human appearing out of the blue. His only real precaution was to have an assistant with a walkie-talkie standing at a blind spot by the Louvre's Rue de Rivoli entrance, to warn him of any stray pedestrians. Hearing nothing, he floored it. When they finally reached the Basilica Sacre Coeur and got out the car, the assistant ambled up, fiddling with his walkie-talkie. “This piece of shit,” he moaned. “It stopped working at the start of the take.”
Shortly after the film was screened, Lelouch was indeed arrested, and told the authorities an F1 driver, whom he refused to name, was at the wheel. “The chief of police called me into his office,” Lelouch told Symons, “and he said to me, 'If the film hasn't been done without any editing or effects, then the red lights were definitely real. So, if the red lights are real, I should take your license 18 times, and I've promised I'd take your license.' He asked me for my license, I gave it to him, he looked at it and said, 'You know, my children loved your film. I've taken your license and now I'm giving it back."
“I made the movie as a gift of this moment of madness,” Lelouch told Romanian Playboy in 2009. “The movie is very symbolic of my life. We did many forbidden things, as I often have in life.” At 75, Lelouch is still directing, but this nine-minute nugget is likely to be what he's most remembered for. Its legendary status undiminished, it continues to be the subject of homages and tributes. In 2003, Nissan made promotional film The Run, a seven-minute version of Rendezvous shot in Prague, although with its legally closed streets, stunt driver and multi-camera angles, it shares none of the threat or danger of its predecessor. In 2006, Snow Patrol used footage from Rendezvous for their 'Open Your Eyes' video, and in 2009, Jay Leno took the wheel of a Mercedes SLS AMG for a short film The Fast And The Famous, his own somewhat sedate Los Angeles take on what he calls “one of the greatest car films ever made.”
With all of today's visual trickery, from cinema CGI to mobile phone photo filters, you can't quite trust anything you see on a screen any more. Other than the audio – Lelouch redid the course with a Ferrari 275 GTB to dub the sound for further thrills – C'était Un Rendezvous is as real as it gets, and you can feel it. They don't make them like that any more. Then again, they never did in the first place. It's the ultimate joyride. Lelouch was both very stupid and very lucky - and he has a great film to show for it. “It was crazy, a folly, that you do once in a lifetime,” he says. “I just pleased myself, it was selfish. I thought only of myself, not anybody else. So I can't be proud of a big moment of selfishness. It's a totally immoral film. I'm guilty. I won't do it again, but I'm glad the movie exists.”
C'était Un Rendezvous is available to buy from http://www.spiritlevelfilm.com