Paris 1976, 5:30am, 0 cuts, 0 special effects, just 1 captivating shot fueled by 8 minutes of raw driving and mystery. Speeding through 18 red lights, careening around corners, and avoiding hurdles such as pedestrians, buses and birds is definitely grounds for getting into some trouble, which is probably why producer Claude Lelouch had to fabricate some of the details behind the making of this hypnotic film (read on to find out which one.)
These elements have solidified Lelouch’s C’était un Rendez-vous (It Was a Date) as one of the greatest car films of all time. In the entirety of the film, we see no hero car, hear no dialogue, and see no driver. Since the moment it was released, people have questioned who the driver was, what car was being driven, and in a time before GoPro, how this film was even able to be made. So, let’s dive into the mystery.
Ferrari or Mercedes?
Lelouch used a gyro-stabilized camera attached to the front of the car to capture the driver’s view of this joyride through Paris.
The exhilarating sound of a Ferrari’s revving engine, squealing tires and symphonic gear shifting is what we hear in the film. (We can’t see it, but we can hear it, so it’s safe to assume the car being used is a Ferrari right? Well, not quite!
Lelouch actually used his own Mercedes 450SEL for the film, because the suspension of the vehicle was a better fit for the camera since it provided more cushioning. Now that we have that cleared up, who was the driver?
Who was behind the wheel?
The sound of the Ferrari engine gave way to speculation that the person behind the wheel was Formula 1 driver and Lelouch’s close friend Jacques Lafitte. After the film screened, Lelouch was arrested by the police, and Lelouch told the officer that a Formula 1 driver was behind the wheel, further feeding into the speculation that Lafitte was indeed the mystery man. However it was actually Lelouch driving, leaving many under the impression that he was thrown into jail after the arrest. Lelouch cleared that misconception up when he shared:
“The chief of police called me into his office, and he said to me, ‘If the film hasn’t been done without any editing or effects, then the red lights were definitely real. So, if the red lights are real, I should take your license 18 times, and I’ve promised I’d take your license.’ He asked me for my license, I gave it to him, he looked at it and said, ‘You know, my children loved your film. I’ve taken your license and now I’m giving it back.’”
Making of C’était un Rendez-vous
In a time prior to today’s special effects technology, reaching speeds of 142mph in a populated area beg the question of how this film was made.
Lelouch asked the city of Paris to have the roads closed in order for him to complete his vision, and without permission granted, he took matters into his own hands.
Only 2 other people knew Lelouch’s exact route.
His assistant, there to warn him of any traffic ahead when Lelouch was coming out of the Louvre’s Rue de Rivoli entrance. (Using walkie talkies to communicate, these unfortunately) failed while Lelouch was en route, resulting in a blind tunnel exit. Lelouch himself admits this was “totally immoral”, and credits the “cinema gods” for his execution of this film with no one getting hurt.
Also along for the ride – Lelouch’s cinematographer who sat in the passenger seat next to Lelouch, controlling the camera’s aperture with a remote control. Against all odds, Lelouch pulled off one of the most legendary films of all time, able to encapsulate most gear heads’ fantasy: freedom behind the wheel.
Lelouch says, “I made the movie as a gift of this moment of madness. The movie is very symbolic of my life. We did many forbidden things, as I often have in life.”