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A movie with not plot, no characters and less than nine minutes of running time. Still, it became a legend in its own right. How a crazy idea of a French director turned into a cult short film?

Eight minutes of engine roar and a car that you can’t even see. A short film without a plot, a screenplay or editing, which became a cult classic despite its simplicity. Or maybe because of it. And to this they, there is a compelling shroud of mystery concerning the French short film C’était un rendez-vous (It Was a Date).

The film, shot in 1976, begins with information that no part of the movie was sped up or edited. The car, which we won’t see in the whole eight minutes of the movie, rushes from the tunnel on the ring road of Paris and blasts past the Victory Arch, around the Palais Garnier opera house or through the Champs-Élysées boulevard. The drive is, to say the least, fast and aggressive. The driver is apparently following the feel for his screaming car, rather than traffic laws. The red is just a colour, the lines on the road are regarded very lightly.

Map of the car’s route through Paris, with time markers.

The low flight through Paris ends at the Sacré-Cœur basilica with the car parking by the sidewalk, the driver rushing to embrace a young woman, coming up the stairs. The motive of the whole film is now clear. It was a date.

To make such a drive even possible, the whole film takes place on a summer Sunday, specifically at the sunset, around 5 o’clock A.M. Half of Paris is asleep by this time, the other half is on the holidays. The traffic is minimal, which was a key factor in creating the legend among the car movies.

Everything was really shot in one continuous take, and in 1970s, nothing else was really possible. The film’s length is limited by the length of the 35 mm film magazine that didn’t really allow for longer shooting. The film camera was mounted on the front bumper of the car – but forget about today`s tiny action cameras stuck somewhere on a car. This was a piece of large and heavy film equipment.

Claude Lelouch adjusting the camera on the front of his Mercedes 450SEL 6.9.

To this day, it is sometimes disputed what car was really used for shooting the movie. According to the filmmaker Claude Lelouch, it was his own Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9, though it is quite clear that the sound in the movie is not the large German V8. It’s because the only significant alteration fo the movie in post-production consisted of replacing the Mercedes sound with the high-pitched wail of the V12 in the Ferrari 275 GTB, also owned by Lelouch.

That’s why we hear the screaming howl and the shifts of a manual transmission with sharp rev-matching. We have to admit that, without the characterful soundtrack, C’etait un rendez-vous would probably not become as legendary. But the sound is there and the film achieved a cult status both among the film fans and car enthusiasts.

One of the reasons for the short film’s popularity is, of course, the number of legends and secrets around it. It’s been rumoured that Claude Lelouch got arrested during the film’s first showing, because of all the traffic laws he broken. However, at the moment, no one really knew if it was him behind the wheel when the movie was shot. There were speculations about taxi drivers or Formula 1 racers. Only much later did it become known that the director was also the main actor.

A Ferrari 275 GTB/4, like the one Lelouch owned.

Much was also said about the rate of speed at which the car is blasting through Paris. Although the filmmaker asserted that in some spots, the car went “over 200 km/h”, various ways of measuring the speed and distance from the picture revealed that at no point was the car going over 140 km/h.  And there’s another interesting fact about authenticity – the traffic was not controlled in any way and only support was assistant, instructed to use a walkie-talkie to inform Lelouch about traffic at the intersection by the Louvre. In the end, the radio failed and it was only fortunate that Lelouch hit a green light there.

All in all, C’était un rendez-vous is a film done in a very “underground” way and the only other person to know about its creation, besides Lelouch and his assistant, was Gunilla Friden – Lelouch’s girlfriend who played the blonde girl at the end of the film. Even so, it is a groundbreaking film, its importance illustrated by recent release of remastered DVD edition and many tributes. In 2003, Nissan shot an advertisement for its 350Z sportscar, rushing to meet a woman through the streets of Prague. Another similar video was shot in 2017 with a Ford Mustang and in the same year, Jeremy Clarkson from The Grand Tour tried the same in Turin.

But enough with words. Let’s enjoy the film!