One of the loveliest freeform ideas to find patronage and popularity in the New Wavey 1960s was the omnibus film, a rarely cohesive but always tempting quasi-genre defined as a collection of exclusively commissioned short films. These projects usually began with a general theme but were always most interested in gathering the generation’s coolest hotshot filmmakers and encouraging them to whack off and make their special kind of havoc, but in compressed form. The aesthetics of the genre are questionable — never is the entirety of an omnibus very satisfying — but its smash-up ranginess of conflicting styles and potpourri perspectives make the movies irresistible. (Favorites of any connoisseur would include 1962’s “The Seven Deadly Sins,” 1963’s “RoGoPaG,” and 1969’s “Love and Anger,” all of which feature the era’s most promiscuous omnibus-er, Jean-Luc Godard.) They’re still being made: the Korean New Wave collection “If You Were Me” (2003) is a knockout, as are the unsettling pan-Asian horror mix, “Three… Extremes” (2004), and the international “Ten Minutes Older” pair of collages from 2002. (We will not waste screen space on 2002’s “11’09″01 — September 11.”) In fact, one of the more popular recent examples, the swoony Parisian neighborhood safari “Paris je t’aime” (2006), was in concept a remake of one of the omnibus film’s pioneering launches, 1965’s “Paris vu par…” (“Six in Paris”), except with three times as many directors and with films one-third the length.
The original film was a classic, hit-the-streets New Wave experiment for producer Barbet Schroeder — six filmmakers, six arrondissements, cheap 16mm cameras, non-pro actors: go. A romantic mistaken-identity dalliance from scholar-semi-New Waver Jean Douchet (“Saint-Germain-des-Prés”) is forgettable, but that’s followed by “Gare du Nord,” Jean Rouch’s survey of a fraying marriage, performed handheld and in one fearless 16-minute take (what impossible 16mm camera did he use?). Featuring Schroeder himself and a Christina Ricci-plus-Angelina Jolie beauty I’ve never seen before named Nadine Ballot, the short’s an O. Henry tale made electric by Rouch’s analytical perspective, especially once Ballot’s prickly wife leaves the apartment and the camera climbs into the elevator with her, the sounds of her hollering husband fading into the distance. Comedy-maker Jean-Daniel Pollet creates an amusingly procrastinative hooker-and-john scenario (“Rue Saint-Denis”), featuring his frequent lead, the astonishingly Keaton-esque Claude Melki.
Eric Rohmer was handed the Place de l’Etoile and the Arc de Triomphe, and so his wry perambulation takes the form of that torturous intersection, as pedestrians and cars do battle, Parisians try to ignore the tourist monument in the middle, and a lone middle-class clerk navigates an unstable urban world. Claude Chabrol wages an all-out attack on a petit bourgeois family (“La Muette”) as the mother and philandering father (played by Chabrol and his wife Stéphane Audran, not a non-pro) eat and bicker and eat some more, and their rebellious son contrives ways to subvert them and finally to shut them out altogether. And Godard chimes in with one of his least characteristic pieces (“Montparnasse-Levallois”) — the travails of a girl stuck between two lovers, both of whom are abusive louts who are farcically so obsessed with their rhyming mechanical vocations (metallurgic action sculpture, auto body work) that they cannot even acknowledge her when she begs for sex. Shot by Albert Maysles, the short looks more like “Grey Gardens” than “Pierrot le Fou.” But the coalescent upshot of “Paris vu par…” is as both a fascinating time capsule (at a moment when, according to Rohmer in the DVD’s liner notes, “Paris is being destroyed”) and a New Wave primer, prioritizing the fleeting textures of life over story, and making the real places in which characters find themselves epically vital.