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Paris. 1976. Summer. Early dawn. Empty – well, largely empty streets. A sexy Miss Sweden to meet. And a V12 Ferrari to get you there. GO!

The big screen has given us multiple excellent car chases and car races over the years. Many have become famous for various reasons – because of the cars, their stunts, the action, the suspense, the soundtrack or all sorts of other reasons. But of them all, none are surrounded by quite as many myths and mystery as the legendary “C’était un Rendez-vous” written and directed by Claude Lelouch.

I’m sure we all know the eight-and-a-half-minute short film. If you don’t, you’re seriously missing out! It is by many regarded as the connoisseurs’ choice when the topic turns to legendary automotive movies – and for good reason too. The movie was filmed in a single take, there are no special effects, no pre-planned stunts, no closed off streets and there’s no speeding up of the film either. There’s not even any speech in the movie – just raw and undiluted action. The wide-angled camera with a 35mm film reel was simply attached to the front bumper of a car and thereby sits low and close to the ground while not showing any of the car, which in turn gives an intense high-speed sensation, as the driver navigates through the center of Paris at break-neck speeds with zero regard to speed limits, other cars and busses, pedestrians or red lights for that matter. Then there is of course that soundtrack, and oh what a soundtrack! A deep and urgent mechanical wail from the strained V12 Ferrari, being hastily worked through its gears towards a beautiful crescendo every time we touch the redline, and delicious bleeps of the throttle as we heel-and-toe back down the gears only to accelerate hard once again in this wild sprint over the cobblestoned streets of Paris.

And then there are all the rumours, the mystery, the myths and the hearsay, which today is almost as big a part of the short film as is the high-speed sprint which we all secretly – or maybe not so secretly – dream of replicating.
– Was the hazardous sprint really undertaken in Lelouch’s private Ferrari 275GTB?
– Was it a famous Formula One driver behind the wheel? Jacky Ickx or maybe Jean-Pierre Beltoise?
– Did the Ferrari really reach 240 km/h as it sped through Paris?
– And was Lelouch truly arrested immediately after the premiere of the film?

Our route through Paris on that early August morning back in 1976.

I was actually vaguely disappointed when Lelouch revealed some of the truth in an interview in 2005. It was as if a little portion of the magic disappeared, even though some of those rumours had in fact already been dispelled by that point. It was Lelouch driving the car himself, and as much of the world had long since figured out, he wasn’t driving his Ferrari, but instead the Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 with which the Ferrari shared the garage. Lelouch had chosen the big Mercedes over the Ferrari as the self-levelling hydropneumatic suspension would help stabilize the picture. Only later did he dub the film with the spine-tingling soundtrack from his V12 Ferrari. That the film was dubbed had been fairly obvious to any true car enthusiast from day one anyway. Don’t get me wrong – it’s quite convincing. But there are nonetheless places where the gearchanges just don’t quite make sense. And while the car is clearly travelling rather briskly, it’s clear to most that we’re not flat-out in fifth as the soundtrack suggests. In fact, calculations have been made from the movie which show that the speed never exceeded 140 km/h – which I suppose is still rather rapid through the center of Paris. And regardless of speed, there’s no denying that a hefty 18 red lights were disregarded!

But put all the dry facts aside. Ignore the nay-sayers pointing out yet again that the dubbed soundtrack doesn’t sync perfectly with the visuals. Who cares? This is 1976, it’s a good as I gets, it’s EPIC! All you need is right here, so turn the volume to max, crawl behind the steering wheel of that 275GTB and hit play to experience eight-and-a-half-minutes of motoring nirvana… (albeit from the safety of your sofa).

7 Responses

  1. Dave Leadbetter
    Yes, it’s become iconic but am I the only person in the world who would have preferred to hear the honest sound of the 6.9 Merc instead? I wonder if somewhere in a secret vault, a version with the real soundtrack exists?
    Reply
  2. YrHmblHst
    I watched this so many times bitd that I memorised the route…and the shift points. Id sit in the chair, watch it and work the clutch and gear lever. [oh c’mon, admit it…you did it too! :) ]
    Reply
  3. Claus Ebberfeld
    I was as huge a fan of this film as the next man – until I discovered that all was not what it was supposed to be. Sure the filming is good and the plot brilliant (!), but the dubbing really bothered me. I wanted to believe in it all, but Ferrari has probably never made any car with a rear axle as short as this one – doing roundabouts at high revs in third.

    So from that moment on I lost most for the film. Nowadays I’d agree with Dave that I’d much rather hear an unedited version. The 6.9 was a spaceship of a car. Come to think of it, the French can keep the original film – just hand me the 6.9.

    Reply
  4. Anders Bilidt
    It’s an interesting thought – what would the short film give us as enthusiasts if it had retained the original Merc soundtrack.
    Well, it would of course give us a sense of reality. The revs would match the perceived speed at which we’re travelling. We also wouldn’t be left with that nagging feeling of “no way would a committed driver have downshifted two cogs right there in the middle of the corner – he would have that all sorted during the braking and well before turning in to the corner.”
    But on the flipside, the movie would no doubt loose a fair chunk of drama on that account. Yes, the 6.9 liter engine of the Merc is a force to be reckoned with, but it just doesn’t omit near the same spine-tingling sensation.


    Uhmmm… yes indeed, of course I have done that too… ;-)

    Reply
  5. Dave Leadbetter
    Shall we just see if we can borrow a 6.9 Merc and have a go ourselves? I’m free this evening.
    Reply
  6. Anders Bilidt

    I’m not free, but you source a 6.9 and have it waiting for us in Paris, and I promise you I will move mountains to clear my calendar… ;-)
    Reply
  7. Tony Wawryk
    It seems I am one of the few who has not seen this short film before, and having watched it, I’m afraid it does very little for me (sorry!). I appreciate there is some impressive city driving going on, at what seems to be very early morning, and the sound is indeed glorious for a couple of minutes. But I would have found it much more exciting had I been able to hear and SEE the car – whether 6.9 Merc or 275 GTB. For me, this film shows only half the story of a dramatic cross-Paris drive. I would have liked to see the car’s tail flick out around a bend or roundabout, see the driver concentrating as he weaves in and out of the sparse early morning traffic, watch him wrestle with the wheel (and in either car, it would have been effortful)…I realise I’m in a minority on this forum, but cars and driving are as much about the visual as the audible for me…and in this case, I want to see the car doing it’s thing!
    I’ll crawl back under my rock now…
    Reply

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