A little over a year ago while in Paris, where his wife’s mother was convalescing from an operation, Theodore Dalrymple started going to the cinema a couple of times a day. Such an unusually wide variety of films was on offer there, he realised, that it would be possible to travel around the world cinematically without ever leaving town. He decided he would take this stationary journey, and in his delightful new book, Around the World in the Cinemas of Paris, he describes how it went. Although he can have had no idea that a pandemic was approaching, with its accompanying array of restrictions, the fact that both cinema-going and travel are now out of the question for many of us makes his project seem perfectly timed. With the book in hand, the reader at last has an opportunity to visit a variety of cinemas, at least vicariously, and to indulge in travel, even if it is only of the armchair type.
The films viewed for the book were chosen purely according to their location, Dalrymple tells us in his preface. He excluded France, Britain and the US, because he felt he knew them too well to watch films made there with fresh eyes. He decided to “visit” any country only once. His interest, he says, was not that of a student of cinema but of a traveller. “It was the depiction of the countries that interested me,” he explains. He then proceeds to describe what it was like to watch thirty-three films (almost all made in 2017 or 2018), set in thirty-four countries, over the course of one year.
In this book, as always, Dalrymple proves himself to be perceptive, thoughtful, largely undogmatic and often very funny. He asks unusual questions, refuses simple answers and admits that there is much he does not know. “Irrelevant questions enter my mind as I watch films, sometimes with the persistence of an obsessional idea,” he confides, adding that sometimes he feels “like the man who visits Versailles and wonders how they polish all of the mirrors”. Thus, while watching a film from Lebanon, his mind hooks on the question of whether or not helmets really save the lives of construction workers, or whether they are “more magical incantation than genuine protection”. It is a question that seems surprisingly relevant in this era of face-mask debate. Even more apposite are his remarks following his viewing of an Indian movie called Hotel Salvation: “The supposed right to health, frequently advocated, makes of death an infringement of rights; but, while individual deaths may be unjust, Death itself cannot be … Death is always victorious.”
Most of the films covered in the book are, I suspect, far more interesting and amusing in Dalrymple’s accounts of them than they might be if one actually had to sit through them in person. Certainly his explanation of the only film among the selection that I have seen myself, The Square, made much better sense of the film than I had managed to do on my own. When reporting on films from countries he has some familiarity with, he intertwines his accounts of them with his own memories, and in all his accounts he includes the most interesting of the thoughts and questions that the films raise in his mind. Thus a film from Burma provides the opportunity to reminisce on the experience of being set about with an umbrella by a Buddhist monk when he visited that country and to ponder the guilty pleasure many travellers from better-off, freer countries experience when visiting somewhere that is deprived in comparison to where they come from. As Dalrymple points out, while modernisation is naturally to be wished for, it also means “another step in the destruction of difference”. Frontiers, a film that takes the viewer through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria, evokes memories of his own travels in that region, and helps him to understand that what he thought he saw there was not always what was really going on.
His enthusiasm—one chapter begins, “It is rare that one has the opportunity to see a Paraguayan film, and I seized it with alacrity”, and another starts with the equally keen, “How could I resist a film that followed several market women in their journey across West Africa by bus?”—is endearing, but behind the apparent naive eagerness lies a razor-sharp mind. When he reports on a film from Romania, he manages to encapsulate in one withering sentence everything that was wrong with the communists who ruled that country so brutally: “They had nothing to recommend them and ruined everything they touched.” While discussing a film from Germany, he observes, “We sometimes forget that sincerity may be a vice worse than cynicism”, thus encapsulating in eleven words everything it took Graham Greene the whole of The Quiet American to try to express.
He reflects on the medium of film itself, raising interesting questions about its deceptive quality, its ability to alter preconceptions and on whether it is “best to leave something to the viewers’ imagination” or to show everything, concluding that choosing the latter option can be a mistake: “the explicit in film … turns everything into spectacle, whereas the implicit works by insinuation into the imagination”. When making no comment works best, he leaves well alone, introducing us to a character in a film who “is waiting in the station for a consignment of used limb prostheses”, without feeling the need to embellish the absurdity of that statement. When he uses analogy, he makes sure it is striking: “The glitter is that of a fish rotting by moonlight” he tells us, for example, summing up a decadent but tawdry section of Brazilian society.
Dalrymple seems to approach everything in life, including the films he describes here, with humour and an open-minded curiosity that is infectious (if one can still use that word positively). He has above all a fascination for the strangeness of humanity. “How odd we are!” he says at one point. This exclamation could be an alternative title for this enjoyable, amusing and thoughtful book.
Around the World in the Cinemas of Paris
by Theodore Dalrymple
Mirabeau Press, 2020, 268 pages, available through Amazon, £9.94