How seeing an area or landscape you know well in a film affects your viewing experience

A locale you know intimately on screen gives you more than a flicker of recognition, a jarring effect that can prevent you from fully engaging with the film.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In Louis Garrel’s recent film Les Deux Amis, a modern take on Jules and Jim, Mona (Golshifteh Farahani), a prisoner gone AWOL on day-release, pays a visit to the Paris neighbourhood she grew up in.

She chats to a street vendor selling roasted chestnuts off a brazier and says she hardly recognises the area anymore. I had no such difficulty, because the neighbourhood is the one I currently live in, the scene taking place outside a dive bar I frequent from time to time.

The film’s visit to the quartier had already been signalled by an earlier scene where Mona uses the local municipal baths – recognisable by a close-up of the establishment’s fascia sign alone. Still, there was something a bit off about the scene with the brazier – I have never seen one set up on that corner, not least because it would be intrusive on such a narrow pavement. But if one goes around the corner to boulevard de Ménilmontant they are a far more regular sight.

You sense though that a scene on a wide boulevard rather than on a narrow side street would have given a different impression to the one Garrel wanted to convey. It might even, in the mind of the viewer, give the impression of a completely different Paris.

Like many parts of Paris, Ménilmontant pops up in movies a lot. Just up the street from me is a former guinguette, which was used in a famous scene in Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or (1952) and Albert Lamorisse’s legendary children’s film The Red Balloon (1956) also takes place here.

More recently, Brian de Palma’s Femme Fatale (2000), Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo (2013) and Agnès Jaoui’s Under the Rainbow (2013) have been filmed here, as has the forthcoming Idriss Elba film Bastille Day, which constructed an ingeniously fake Métro entrance that will have Paris-watchers scratching their heads wondering where it might be located.

Seeing a locale you know intimately on screen gives you, much more than a flicker of recognition, a jarring effect that can sometimes prevent you from parsing the film’s internal landscape (and even its grammar).

Casque d’Or (Jacques Becker, 1952)

The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse, 1956)

Watching the recent Melissa McCarthy comedy Spy, I was amused to spot an anatopism that made an intended joke all the more absurd. McCarthy’s CIA agent Susan Cooper is sent out into the field for the first time, her port of call being Paris.

Arriving in the city, she takes a long taxi ride, passing each of the celebrated tourist sites in improbable order; her awed delight soon turns to concern when she winds up in a dodgy neighbourhood on the outskirts of town where her hotel is located. To anyone with some knowledge of France’s northern neighbour Belgium, the squat red-brick architecture of the hotel is clearly of Brussels, which gives that bonus layer to the joke.

There later follow a number of other geographical lurches between the two cities and it is not surprising to learn that the use of Brussels was for tax reasons (it really would not have been that hard to find a suitably grim hotel in Paris).

I have previously encountered this in films shot in Ireland, which often tend to shuffle the country’s topography in disorienting fashion but most films benefit from an audience’s unfamiliarity with the location. Disbelief in the film’s inner landscape is not so much suspended as stifled at birth.

The landscape of a film is peculiar to itself (at least in an urban context) – the San Francisco of Bullitt is noticeably different to the city as portrayed in Vertigo, not to mention Dirty Harry.

The film often needs only a few subtle elementary markers to establish the terrain – for Paris, unless it is a comedy, a glimpse of a café terrace or a cast-iron green press kiosk is usually sufficient. In lesser-known towns or cities, these aren’t even necessary – the filmmaker has free rein to contrive their own geographical background.

Indeed, most of the “work” imagining the geographical world of the film is done by the spectator, who must conjure up the unseen habitat from the slim shards of location the filmmaker divulges.

Watching Blade Runner recently for the first time in many years, I noticed that relatively little of Los Angeles is to be seen in it. Other than the Bradbury Building and a few shorter scenes in other LA-movie staples such as Union Station (both documented in Thom Andersen’s wonderful film essay Los Angeles Plays Itself), the LA of 2019 largely relies on the viewer’s impressions drawn from pre-existing images of the city and the landscape outlined in the opening half hour (Lawrence G. Paull’s production design for the film is exceptionally strong).

And much of cinema is topographical illusion – things are cropped, distanced, brought closer, obscured and so on to condense a world into the camera frame, an essence of the universe the film portrays.

And in order to achieve this peculiar illusion, you need to privatise (or, failing that, eschew, by way of a studio set) the actual world – to tame reality into fiction, you must shut off streets (usually at a cost), place production assistants on street corners to keep curious bystanders out of the frame, you must painstakingly ensure continuity between takes and hope the messiness of the off-camera world does not become apparent on screen.

Stanley Kubrick famously filmed everything from the suburban America of Lolita to the Vietnam of Full Metal Jacket in the UK – his fear of flying supposedly deterred him from going on location but it is also tempting to believe that Kubrick’s notorious control freakery prompted him to have the mountain come to him, so that he could elide any of the unforeseen circumstances that might dog the fiction filmmaker’s preferred sterile environment.

Films in rural settings tend to resemble one another more – the desert in widescreen Technicolor will inevitably summon up memories of Lawrence of Arabia (or in a futuristic context, the Tattooine of Star Wars), any film shot in rural Ireland will have to tolerate comparison to Ryan’s Daughter while Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations have made the New Zealand countryside their own, without even mentioning the name of the country once.

A non-urban background also makes a greater visual impression, as well as offering greater opportunities for narrative ambiguity.  Many Westerns look alike (often because they were shot at the same locations, be it Monument Valley or Almería) but the thematic and narrative range of the Western was probably greater than any other classic film genre.

Westerns rarely take place in an undefined locale but there is seldom any effort made to distinguish one film topographically from another (one of the favourite tropes of studio-era films – a change of location charted out on a map was hardly ever resorted to in Westerns, even as protagonists journeyed for days on end). In this respect, the backdrop provides a scenographic flexibility akin to the empty stage of Elizabethan theatre.

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, 2014)

Because of this flexibility the Western can also exist outside of the old American west (which was itself often recreated elsewhere). Lisandro Alonso’s enigmatic Argentine Western Jauja finds an environment remarkably similar to the United States in Patagonia – settler colonials battling with resilient natives for control of wide tracts of countryside (the Mapuche and other indigenous peoples of the cone of South America were among the few south of the US to sufficiently master horsemanship and weapons to be able to resist their invaders).

But the film also draws on the iconography of Western cinema and photography – the landscape is beautifully shot through an Academy Ratio aperture, the depth of field somehow accentuating the bigness of the land in spite of the cramped frame.

It also uses a range of filters that recalls both the contemporary trends of Instagram and Hipstamatic and the sepia otherness of early New World photography. It is a film that straddles the new and the old, the familiar and the known.

It even has a familiar face – Viggo Mortensen – in an unfamiliar environment, playing a Danish military engineer, speaking Spanish far more broken and rudimentary than he speaks in real life (he grew up in Argentina). Mortensen is both a selling point for the film and a narrative decoy (at the screening I saw of it about a dozen people walked out, clearly expecting something different) –– though Captain Gunnar Dinesen’s search for his missing daughter drives the film’s narrative, the real star of the film is the bare, silent Patagonian steppe.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.