After a decade spent making films in Eastern Europe, Joris Ivens went to Paris; La Seine a rencontré Paris won at Cannes. His East German Song of the Rivers (Das Lied der Ströme, 1954), with music by Shostakovich and lyrics by Brecht, composed a hymn to labor and international workers’ solidarity along six rivers worldwide, to which the new film adds the Seine. “The Seine is a factory,” Jacques Prévert’s poetic commentary states; “the Seine is work.” Much of the film is shot from measuredly paced river barges, and some of it indeed shows laboring humanity. But there is more than that. This river, runs the voiceover, “is a song from the headsprings. ‘She has the voice of youth,’ says a woman in love, smiling.” This masterpiece conjoins French lyricism and Dutch sturdiness.
Silence, made all the more mesmerizing by Philippe Gérard’s harpsichord music, explodes into sound: men at work excavating; a plethora of boys playing on a stack of logs; girls in a circle singing a song; the sights and sounds of traffic; the weight of a dog splashing into the river to retrieve a toy; a downpour of windy rain into the river (we see umbrella-ed souls in long-shot moving across an aqueduct), recalling Ivens and Mannus Frånken’s great Regen (Rain, 1929).
Prévert’s script: “A river like any other, and I’ll be the first to lament her. And the Seine hears laughter and slips away like a cat.” Images of and from the river accumulate an undertow of melancholy: three women walking together; against a tree, a girl asleep in her sleeping boyfriend’s arms. A child’s bicycle rises from the river, retrieved by a man wearing underwater goggles and an aqualung.
Prévert: “There once was the Seine. There once was life.”
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