At dawn on an August day, forty-six years ago – 1976 – the French film director Claude Lelouch (author of “A Man and a Woman”) grappled with one of the craziest, most controversial and extraordinary attempts at motoring cinema. Original title: “C’était un rendez-vous”. This is the story of a man running from his woman.
Pictures © Les Films 13 Archive
A modern story, one of wild and reckless romanticism. A subjective sequence shot, eight-and-a-half minutes’ long, covering ten kilometres through the streets of Paris, in a car at ultra-high speed: "The film was made without any tricks and is not speeded up," reads the initial warning. Without any stops, not even at a red traffic light, up to the steps leading to the “Sacré-Cœur”. A beautiful blonde girl appears, the only face seen in the whole film. The man gets out of the car, enters the frame and a still image freezes their embrace.
The girl is Gunilla Friden, ex Miss Sweden and semi-finalist in the 1968 Miss World competition, at that time French director Claude Lelouch’s fiancée. The instructions were clear: “Wait at the bottom, and run up the steps as soon as you hear the sound of a car,” Lelouch told her, with no further explanation.
The only accomplice in this crazy adventure was Élie Chouraqui, the director’s assistant, who stood at a crossroads where there was not enough visibility. Using a walkie talkie, he was supposed to inform the driver if there were any pedestrians or other obstacles. But, as Lelouch himself later declared, the radio transmitters were faulty and there was no way of communicating during the shoot.
“C’était un rendez-vous” (“It Was a Date”) was shot with a single camera mounted on the front bumper of a Mercedes “450SEL” 6.9 to obtain the subjective frame. The car, the director’s own, was considered suitable for the job because of its smooth chassis and the automatic transmission, which guaranteed the necessary stability and progressivity during the shoot.
A second lap with Lelouch’s Ferrari “275 GTB” was needed to record a more alluring sound, which was superimposed over the original during post-production.
Doing the maths, it is estimated that it took just over eight minutes to cover the 10.6 kilometres, travelling at an average speed of 80 kilometres an hour. But beware: this is an average, because legend has it - and the film confirms - that in some stretches the driver reached speeds of up to 140 kilometres an hour.
Out of respect for the traffic rules, the contents compromised the dissemination of the film. It was screened only a few times, unexpectedly, during the interval in other films: anyone who had seen it had something to boast about. Very poor-quality pirate videos cost more than 50 dollars, if you were lucky enough to find one. And then came the Youtube era, and in 2003 attempts were made to get hold of the original film and make a DVD. Years later a remastered Blu-Ray limited edition was released. Today, both have become a real collector’s pieces, very hard to find and very expensive.
For years, rumour had it that Lelouch had hired a Formula 1 driver for his escapade. “I was at the wheel; it was my film, and I took on all the risks and responsibilities,” the director later confessed, without every really convincing the film’s fans.
“After the film was shown for the first time, I was summoned the police chief in person. He read me an endless list of violations, gave me a hard stare and asked for my documents. He had promised his superiors that he would take my licence away, but didn’t actually say for how long. In fact, he looked at it for a moment and then handed it back to me, with a huge smile on his face. Dismissing me, he told me that his children loved my film”.
Forty-four years later, in 2020, the year of the pandemic, Lelouch attempted what has been defined as the “remake” of his famous short film. Title: “Le Grand Rendez-Vous” (see the video here). This time the starring role was played by the Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc, at the wheel of an SF90 Stradale on the streets of the Principality of Monaco, with Price Albert II in the passenger seat. Waiting for them, playing a florist, is Rebecca Blanc-Lelouch, Claude and Gunilla Friden’s granddaughter, just to underline the shrewd connection to the 1976 “Rendez-Vous”.
The 2020 edition was filmed during the time the Monaco Grand Prix was due to be held, involving a crew of seventeen people equipped with six iPhones, nine GoPros and a camera. To support the Ferrari SF90 (two of them were used), a team of six mechanics and engineers came over from Maranello.
These numbers, and a story that cannot be described exactly as brilliant, are enough to understand that this was a completely different matter. A six-minute “short” that was unable to thrill the fans like the 1976 original did. It was a commercial operation, but above all an “official” one: and today, this is what makes Lelouch’s first crazy and “illegal” race an even more legendary and unrepeatable exploit.