Changing Landscapes (1964) - full transcript

A documentary account of landscape change in and around Paris in the early 1960s.




Turn your back on the main road.

This countryside
has not changed in 200 years.

It's an industrial landscape.

The windmill is
a strictly functional machine,

designed to make the most of
the strength of the wind.

This is what it represented to the farmers
who brought the wheat to mill.

Try to look at it for a moment
through their eyes

and put aside all the poetic glamour
of the invented tradition.

Shed the pastoral, even fantastic aspect,

of our childhood fables.

Another landscape, another machine.

The kind of fascination it evokes,

the dreams it creates,

the methodical beauty it possesses,

even its own poetry,

is so different from that of the windmill
made of canvas and wood.


Inhuman, yet at the same time human,
since it is made by man

and, in a way, in his image.

It raises interest, concern
and reassurance at the same time.

It possesses a charm, a personality.

It exists, in a way,
like a zoological species.

It has amalgamated with its background

and nature has adopted it.

It is in this tidy beauty
of the industrial landscape,

as it has been created between
the middle of the 19th century and today,

that we wish to make a brief excursion.

This is a difficult beauty.

Difficult to uncover, to let in.

It is a paradox to look for beauty
in a world

on which we have deliberately
turned our backs.

A world dedicated to chaos,

to the undefined,

to perpetual change, to the uncompleted.

A world which carries the mark,

unlike the rural or urban landscape,

not of the joy of creativity of man

but of his sweat and sorrow.

It evokes more the glory
of what no longer is,

than the seduction of what will be.

It's not a question of
defending the indefensible.

Ugliness, undeniably,

is part of the heritage handed down
by the 19th century

which we have, it must be said,
made profitable.

It is true that our times
have brought cleanliness.

But the inventor of hygiene has also
introduced filth, leprosy and misery

of which our forbearers had no idea.

It is quite strange that nature
reveals her feelings to us

just as systematic destruction
of the landscape is beginning.

There is no longer
a hectare of land in France

on which the civilisation of machinery

has not stamped infinite ramifications.

Every day in the countryside,
the roads open enormous wounds

through which a virus infiltrates

to which we have no antidote.

Towns were the jewels of the provinces.

They made admirable backdrops
in the landscape.

Their outskirts,
which gave them their glory,

have become today their shame.

Long gone is the happy juxtaposition
of urban architecture

and rural layout.

The landscapes so dear to many painters
from Bruegel to Corot.

We are keen on archaeology,

we found museums
and we restore monuments,

but we are deprived of the pleasure

of photographing the forms
and the original beauty of these towers,

church towers, belfries

because so tight
is the network of wires, pylons,

and antennas which
imprison them in their webs.

Let's leave these graceless landscapes.

The sadness they exude

is too paltry to feed
our poetic daydreaming.

The poetry of our times

it is not in the fields and grasslands that
20th century man might hope to find it,

but in the smoke
of the old factories' chimneys,

in the heart of this industrial zone,
which, for over 100 years,

has established itself
at the feet of the towns,

surrounding them, shutting them in,
suffocating them

while allowing them to live and grow.

It is no longer from the heights
of Père Lachaise

that we can admire, like Rastignac,
the sight of prestigious Paris

but by stepping back
to the hills of Argenteuil.

Let's go east towards
La Plaine Saint-Denis,

one of the most industrial areas
in the region.

It is a happy surprise to see
that chaos is not the rule.

Here, the hand of man,
together with chance,

makes for a rigid layout.

The lines assert themselves,
vertical, horizontal,

curved or oblique,

create contrasts,

relations, rhythms, rhymes

and parallelism.

We're now in the coal field
of the Pas-de-Calais, near Béthune.

An ancient habit

has sealed the reconciliation
of nature and human activity.

An osmosis has taken place,

each one borrowing
characteristics of the other.

The factories, aged by the years
and by fog and coal dust

are part of the landscape.

While this one,
having lost its usual serenity,

seems to aid the intense labour of man.

As in volcanic areas, the earth works.

It turns its own hand to great work.

It doesn't symbolise that which is static

but the perpetual changes that have
never ceased to be since the beginning.

These slag heaps which dot the horizon

are brothers of volcanoes, emerging,
like them, from the belly of the earth.

Obeying the same laws of formation,

they have retained their proportions,
structure, profiles,

and their bitter sterility.

They give the landscape
the look it had before the erosions,

sedimentations and floods.

All poetry is metaphor.

We evoke volcanoes but this chimney
also reminds us of a donjon.

It has the same air,
formidable and familiar

and the same allure,
as a protector and a guardian.

And in front of it, on a calm morning,

as in the Très Riches Heures
du Duc de Berry,

the peasant continues
the gesture of the sower.

Sometimes, not much is needed
to find ourselves in fantasy.

Under the setting sun,
this landscape on the outskirts of Paris,

the building site of a future ring road,

transforms in a few minutes
into El Dorado.

The cement mixers are soaring towers,

the flour mills, enchanted palaces.

A magic spell,

which we know, like the sun,
how to perform every now and then.

We project our own shadows,

turning our backs to reality and get stuck
in the caves of our imagination.

We had so many objects
we were trying to name

endowed with a more mysterious power.

They were gifted, without us knowing,
with poetic dignity.

This barge is surely poetic.

It has its coat of arms, its golden legend,

and from it could emerge,
like wandering sailing boats,

a ghostly world.

The train, on the contrary,
is no longer a terrifying dragon.

Looking at it go past was
the Sunday luxury of our grandfathers.

This innocent old-fashioned vice,

has remained the best game for kids.

The automobile, the tank or the rocket
still haven't managed to replace it.

It was the first, in time and nobility,
modern means of transport

which, from Phileas Fog's railway
to Tintin's airplane,

lived in the books and albums
of our youth

next to Cinderella's coach
and the seven-league boots.

A port landscape.

Here, there's no need for a Merlin or
for the prism of our imagination

to transform into gold the lead of dull

The sea is a great magician.

It transforms everything it touches,
no one escapes.

It knows how to impose its tyranny
even on the most utilitarian object.

It dictates its stature, its size,
its proportions, its charm.

It gives it a transparency,
a fineness of lace,

an intangibility almost.

Under the marine sky,
steel loses some of its aggression.

It became noble when the rural world

was pushing it away,
proclaiming its indignity.

The medieval towers
seen in the distance

no longer suffer from the proximity
of the cranes.

Let's return to the countryside
that we were criticising earlier.

It too, at times, is abundant with mirages.

This chateau whose silhouette
is soaring in the horizon,

is only a recently built silo.

But here the sun,
far from transforming it,

accentuates its modernism.

As for the pylons, which disturb
the peace of the field,

their form,
deprived of finesse and majesty,

confirms our previous anathema.

The beauty of this modern world
is not immediately obvious.

It requires an effort, a training,

an asceticism.

But we no longer need
to be the pioneers.

Others have paved the way
from the very beginning.

Many are painters who,
from the Impressionists to the Fauvists,

have taken their motifs from
the industrial landscape.


Van Gogh.






Le Douanier Rousseau.

La Fresnaye.

More recent paintings.

This one, for example, by Léger,






Vieira da Silva,

Nicolas de Stael.

This painting finds its echo, its source,

in these geometric forms,
bare or baroque,

from walking around
the building sites and factories

that allow us to harvest more easily.

In what way has architecture contributed

to the youth of the new landscape?

This view is familiar to us.

It's now a classic in the same league
as Notre Dame

and Place de la Concorde.

But the audacity of the engineer Eiffel
deeply shocked people back then.

Iron architecture has not changed
the face of the world

as was believed, or feared,
at the end of the 19th century.

With hindsight, it seems very moderate.

But it is nearly always endowed

with a robust and opulent elegance,
particular to the Belle Époque.

Paris owes to it
one of its most beautiful sites.

The over ground part of the metro
along the Boulevard de la Chapelle

before Canal Saint-Martin.

Admire the grace of the long curve.

Since the Egyptians and the Greeks,

man has been obsessed
by the shape of the portico

which explains
our ancestral fear of heaven.

Added to that, we see
the reminiscence of the roller coasters

and other slides of the funfairs.

The style is hybrid,

the Doric columns
and the Louis XIII pediments

show the timidity of the builder.

Seen from above, from the metro,
the landscape is endearing.

A quick view of the elegant
Rotonde of Paris,

the remains of the enclosure
of the farmer generals.

Its beauty surpasses
the beauty of our viaduct

but their proportions fit together

and they don't look disagreeable
next to each other.

It was built
by the famous architect Ledoux,

a pioneer, in the 18th century,
of the industrial aesthetic.

Nearby, over Canal Saint-Martin,

is another charming example
of iron architecture.

Its grace, slightly exotic,

owes nothing to Greek, Roman
or medieval pastiches

but more to the Japanese,
who at the same time

allowed Van Gogh to reveal himself.

200 metres further,

two other bridges.

The first one, the humpback bridge,
is for pedestrians,

while the other,
which is reserved for vehicles,

goes up to give way to the barges

thanks to cables sliding on big pulleys.

These bare cogs

have the inelegant,
and simultaneously elegant air

of the first bicycles and sewing machines
of our grandparents.

This isolated area of Paris
has kept its end-of-the-century charm

and it would be only with bitterness

that we abandon it
to the demolition machines.

A whole era has passed
that goes well beyond the 19th century

until the post-war years.

The era of the electronics and the atom
will follow the era of the coal.

In the world of technology,
everything gets old too quickly

and these factories, only fifty-years old,

seem to be older than other
hundred-year-old buildings.

They have the melancholy
of things that are doomed to disappear

sooner or later.

Sometimes, ironically,
the factory returns to the earth,

and, like this brickyard,
is transformed into a cowshed.

Finally, let's have an indulgent look
at this industrial landscape

that is starting to enter history.

The factories of the future

will go and hide
behind the woods in the countryside.

Where the sickly suburbs used to be

will soon rise a new world,
clean, neat, tidy.

Our reasons to be delighted
are stronger than our regrets

and we hope that
the future landscape of our lives

will leave the way open to reverie.

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