Long before I lived and worked in Paris, my first exposure to French pop culture was Hexagone, the ’80s French textbook we used in our ’90s secondary school in Ireland. Mainland France is shaped like a hexagon, you see.
We studied French and German in first year, and then our school made us choose one or the other for the Junior Cert cycle. Neither French nor German was much help to us with the impossibly exotic Spanish students who flocked to our town every summer. It was the co-ed (i.e. girls and boys in the same building!) secondary school across the park which offered Spanish and facilitated those foreign exchanges; our boys-only Christian Brothers school seemed to hold itself as being more respectable than facilitating anything as modern as that, the next stops on that line invariably being divorce, abortion and — God forbid— contraception.
I had done better in my first-year German exams than in French. Why were we learning German, anyway? Because among the notions that took hold in 1980s Ireland, along with the evils of female autonomy and the moving of religious statues, was that German was The Language of Business and Technological Corporations, so it was impressed on us as studious young Europeans to learn it, perhaps to emigrate there instead of cluttering up London or Boston. An aunt of mine in another town worked in a German IT company that had located there in the ’80s (and is still there today) so to me the story checked out. As things panned out, twenty years later German became the language of ceding Irish sovereignty to the Bundesbank (remember all that?) so maybe our pedagogical betters were on to something.
Back in the early stretches of second-year secondary school I must have had a fateful inkling of my own; flying in the face of empirical evidence (my respective first-year summer exam results in French and German) I chose French and thereby committed myself to a life of Frenchness. At that time, though, fourteen-year-old me had no concept of even visiting Paris; I hadn’t been abroad yet, or even been to Dublin.
Anyway, I settled in for Junior Cert French as taught by Irish teachers, apart from one glorious week with a substitute teacher who was a smoulderingly attractive young French woman of north African heritage; we were all completely smitten, painfully aware of our inadequacy and, according to our principal as he walked past, the quietest and best-behaved class ever. Hexagone, in among its sections on the passé composé and what have you, had features on some famous French people from back in the ‘80s: Michel Platini, Johnny Hallyday, perhaps Bernard Hinault, and a movie star called Jean-Paul Belmondo, who as I write this has recently died. Unlike the English-language obituaries for him, which focused on À Bout De Souffle but sniffed at his ’70s box-office pleasers, Hexagone knew how to grab the attention of Irish teenagers: Belmondo, it told us, did his own stunts! Including dangling from a helicopter! And running along the roof of a moving ‘metro’ (the underground train network in Paris, the capital of France, where they speak French)!
As it happens, both of those stunts are from the same movie: a 1975 police action thriller called Peur Sur La Ville. For what it’s worth, and in case my former French teachers are reading this, that title translates as “fear over the city” but I doubt it was ever formally released in an English-speaking territory; it was aimed squarely at Belmondo’s adoring French public. By this stage Belmondo had grown out of his boyish À Bout De Souffle looks and instead became a wily, leathery, smart-arse action-comedy hero, always dissing his boss, ‘crossing the line’, seducing the picturesque female witness, and bringing down the big bad with a mix of animal instinct and Hollywood swashbuckle. His nearest English-language equivalent was probably Roger Moore’s James Bond in Moonraker, dispatching henchmen with a quip before driving through Venice in a hover-gondola. (Belmondo in another of his action-comedy pics also had a signature Venice stunt, in which he was lifted from a boat and dangled from yet another helicopter but this time while wearing comedy-value boxer shorts.)
I won’t argue for Peur Sur La Ville beyond its merits; it’s fairly dumb in places, a bit pretentious in others (I think the main villain’s particular physical distinction is meant to be symbolic of his motivation) and even for a ’70s movie it has an astonishingly reductive view of women. The action set-pieces, though, are fantastic. Not so much the helicopter dangling, as Belmondo and his character are well strapped in, but an early car chase and shoot-out with a satisfying bullet to the forehead, plus a vertiginous pursuit across the rooftops of Paris that’s wonderfully framed and photographed.
And that metro sequence is indeed as thrilling as my French schoolbook promised it would be. Belmondo’s cop spots a criminal from Act I ducking into a metro station (Charles de Gaulle — Étoile by the looks of it) but gets to the platform only to see the train start to pull away with our perp. No bother; Belmondo runs after it, catches up to the last carriage and grabs on. Cue some very cinematic crawling, clambering and a particularly ostentatious drop to his belly to duck an oncoming tunnel roof. The money shot is of the train crossing the Seine at an open-air bridge; that is indeed an untethered and unharnessed Jean-Paul Belmondo himself on top of the train high above Paris. It being a Belmondo ’70s film, the action sequence ends on a gag of sorts — or maybe I’m just particularly sadistic. Anyway, it’s all hugely enjoyable.
Because we in Ireland only got the arty, serious version of French cinema (mostly through the familiar Artificial Eye series of rental videos) I only first saw this scene in a show-reel as part of an exhibition in the Hôtel de Ville, the Paris equivalent of ‘city hall’, about Paris in cinema. Yes, there were excerpts of musicals and dramas and comedies, plus Alain Delon looking pretty and moody in the metro in Le Samouraï, and that Belmondo metro sequence from Peur Sur La Ville. I went back to that exhibition several times — it was brilliant, and free — and each time the people watching that clip cheered for Belmondo, oohed and aahed at his stunts and, let’s be honest, laughed at the ending too.
I watch the French evening news on international francophone channel TV5 a lot, and for Belmondo’s death the coverage was one part À Bout De Souffle brooding anti-hero to two parts Peur Sur La Ville crowd-pleasing hero. And you know what? That’s just about right. You can prefer one or the other, but it’s a much better world and a much richer life if you let yourself like both. It took me far too long to learn this, and I sigh to see the same dichotomy has also been put forward in media coverage of another celebrity death this week, that of Sarah Harding from Girls Aloud, the “manufactured” “girl group” who in fact made far more exciting and innovative music than the 4 Real guitar bands of their time.
Here’s the late Jean-Paul Belmondo in the famous metro chase from Henri Verneuil’s Peur Sur La Ville, one of the best action sequences ever and a valuable insight to my own Paris commuting experiences: