Interview with director Matthew Lancit
Where are you from and how did you end up in Paris?
I grew up in Toronto, Canada. I lived in New York for a few years, before quitting my job in advertising to bum around Europe until I had squandered away most of my savings. There, I met a French girl and followed her to Cameroon, where I made my first feature-length documentary Funeral Season. Soon after that, Blandine and I decided to settle down in Paris.
How did you first experience this new city of Paris?
When I arrived in Paris I had no working papers and my French was limited to the names of the fruits and vegetables – maybe a few animals. The time between creative projects was dragging and the line between idleness and depression became more and more vague. I had few friends and nothing to do with my days. When the few French friends I had learned how I passed my days – reading in the park, going to the movies, walking around different neighbourhoods – their response was: “You are a real flâneur!” When I looked up the word online, I could not find a suitable English translation, so my curiousity grew and the question what is a flâneur? became interchangeable with the question: who am I?
Was it already underscored by ideas of flâneurism? Did you know Baudelaire etc?
Well, most of Paris is a museum, and the flâneur is kind of a relic of the past. So, yes, I was aware of Baudelaire as a kind of archetype, but I’m not sure how much of his poetry I had actually read. After doing a lot of research on flâneurs in Paris at the end of the 19th Century, I was fortunate enough to receive a grant from the Canada Council of the Arts to make this documentary. But I was also in the process of becoming a new father at the time, and I questioned whether I could sustain this flâneur lifestyle while assuming a responsible father-figure role. It seemed that society would not allow it. And it occurred to me that the figure of the flâneur has become increasingly pushed to the margins of our speed and work driven society. So, I became curious to see if there were other people like me on the streets of Paris and if the flâneur is something still relevant today.
If, so what do you believe the flâneur is?
I hope that the film can better answer that question than I can.
What insights can the flâneur bring?
I’m not so sure that a flâneur should concern himself with bringing any big insights to the world. I think it was Apollinaire who defined the flâneur as someone who walks with no particular destination in mind. I don’t want to make people think anything; I just want to stop and give people pause. Then they can decide if something is good or bad, ugly or beautiful, but the important thing for me is to open up a moment of reflection. As for the destination, I trust that people will recognize it once they arrive.
Is the flâneur an insider or outsider?
Both. The flâneur is simultaneously a part of the crowd and apart from the crowd. Baudelaire explains that the flâneur follows the movements of the crowd like a bird follows the currents of the air, or a fish moving in water. We all need to sometimes immerse ourselves in a humanity bath, so that element of the flâneur is very much ‘inside’. But it’s increasingly difficult to find a crowd. And when you do, people are rushing to and from work, with their eyes and fingers entrapped by devices luring them toward the virtual world. Being aware of this, the flâneur pauses to look around and consider this phenomenon, which ultimately places him ‘outside’ of it. But then he wants to get back ‘inside’, but by his terms. He seeks interactions with passers-by; he marvels at obstacles along the path; he makes the street into his own home. And so, he slows down the pace of the crowd, and we have no patience for that in our work driven, modern society. So we push him back to the side. The more he wants to get ‘inside’ the further he finds himself ‘outside’. Even today, when he can’t really get away with refusing to work, the flâneur is always borrowing the world’s uniforms and uncomfortable in all of them.
For Walter Benjamin the flâneur heralded an incisive analysis of modernity, an investigator of the city, but also a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism. As such the flâneur is also a symbol of resistance, an antibiotic in the bloodstream of the alienated city. Do you feel that flâneurism can only ever be a private act, an isolated subjectivity, or can it be part of a wider social movement?
I think that the two are intertwined. Historically, the flâneur has been a pivotal influence on many social movements that came after: the surrealists used to wander around forgotten parts of the city in the daytime and through the Buttes Chaumont Park on the outskirts of Paris at night; the psychogeography of the situationists and the practice of the derive sometimes extended a flânerie for days on end and into a space beyond a walker’s accepted limits; even today, there are countless groups of urban explorers, urban artists, and urban developers attempting to convince us to rethink the city. But I believe that which differentiates the flâneur from the badaud is always personal. What you put into an experience and what you get out of an experience is always going to be your own, but hopefully it will have a positive contribution to the world around you.
Before I began shooting this film, I went to an exhibit on Walter Benjamin at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme to further research his writings on the flâneur and Paris at the end of the 19th Century. But it was a little notebook that grabbed my attention instead. On this notebook he had marked the phonetic development of his son. This was about a week before my daughter was born, and I promised to keep a similar notebook tracing her own development. About four pages in, I quit. But I picked up my camera and began to make this film instead. And it was only when I found myself slowly pushing her stroller down the street with a camera braced to my shoulder that my search for the flâneur entered the present.
Your film is interesting not only because of the encounters within it but also because of its sense of duration. It appears that you found an internal coherence and matched subject and form. Do you feel that this sense of duration is in itself a message?
I don’t know if it’s a message, but the slow pace of the film is certainly intentional, and very much against the grain of most of the films we’re exposed to today. It was important for me and my editor that the film be its proper flânerie. Ideally, I suppose that I’d like for people to come out of the film feeling like they’ve just experienced a flânerie for themselves. It’s okay with me if your mind wanders at times while watching this film. I don’t need you to be gripped every couple of minutes by some piece of action or dramatic revelation. On the contrary, I’d prefer audiences to step off their tenterhooks; to lean back and take a moment to breath; to feel free to drift around in their own thoughts for a bit. That’s what I do when I’m with a good book or in front of a painting I like. The challenge was making the film light enough that people would want to come back into it, and that the feeling of coming in and out of the film would be seamless enough that an audience wouldn’t be bored by the slowness of the film. Many people come out of the film telling me that they appreciated it because it reminded them of when they used to have the time to flâner. Others tell me that they are not at all flâneurs, but that they appreciated the opportunity to have entered my world and that they now feel they understand me better. I don’t know if audiences return to their flâneries or decide to begin flâning after watching the film, but this film opens up the possibilities.
How difficult was it for you to adapt to a new city, a new life? Were you a natural flâneur or was flâning forced upon you?
Firstly, I’ve noticed that Parisians tend to be bored by their city, and when you’re a foreigner you look at things with a sort of enchanted gaze. But it’s not the same as being a tourist because, without a return ticket home, you’re set adrift into a world of uncertainty. If you want to, you might just get lost. I think this goes back to what I was saying before about coming to Paris without mastering the French language and not really having the necessary papers in order to find a job. But most unemployed people don’t feel the will to spend their time flâning. That’s not to say it’s impossible. We must acknowledge the social conditions that make things like leisure and beauty possible without designated them to the privileged few. It takes more than circumstances to make someone a flâneur, and I have always maintained that essence precedes existence.