Binge-Worthy #3: Gare de Lyon (William Klein, 1963)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

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A living legend and an innovator in several different photography genres, including abstract, street, and fashion, William Klein also boasts a reputation as an innovative and prolific filmmaker. True to form, he tried his hand at a number of film genres, including experimental avant-garde works, documentaries, and features. Gare de Lyon, one of his earliest efforts, is much more modest in ambition and scale than his later films. It’s a quick sketch made by a brilliant autodidact who is just beginning to test the limits of the medium—and a relatively simple concept executed extremely well. Within a brief time frame (approximately 12 minutes), Klein captures a day in the life of the famous Paris train station from which the film takes its name.

The station is exceptionally crowded because it is the start of summer vacation in France, as a short voice-over at the start of the film makes clear. This event provides both the film’s premise and the critical mass of people necessary for a photographer/filmmaker to be able to lose himself in a crowd. Despite the title, the film is not about the Gare de Lyon per se. The focus is on the people that breathe life into it. The station’s large platform area is simply the vessel that gathers them together.

Fans and practitioners of street and subway photography will find a great deal to appreciate here. This is, after all, William Klein wandering around a train station with a camera. Klein has an innate ability to get fearlessly close without becoming obtrusive or disrupting the scene, as well as a sixth sense for finding compelling moments and faces.

It’s exhilarating as a viewer to be able to push your way into these scenes through Klein’s camera, to look and listen in without any self-consciousness. Klein is able to be present without disrupting the scene, and he enables you to observe and eavesdrop at close range.

Gare de Lyon opens with exterior establishing shots of the station. (Klein’s approach doesn’t jettison film conventions entirely.) These are accompanied by an arhythmic clanking sound that’s hard to pinpoint, and that sounds a little like outdoor construction work in context. An abrupt cut to the station’s interior reveals that sound to be footsteps. A station attendant ascends a staircase, enters a small glass booth, and makes an announcement regarding train arrivals and departures. Planned out beforehand and captured from several angles, the station announcement helps set the scene and creates a framing device, in lieu of a narrative structure.

From there, Klein’s camera moves throughout the train station, capturing people in the space between the spaces where they conduct their lives. Children play, travelers buy tickets, baggage handlers make their way through the crowd. These and other ordinary scenes of station life are rendered transcendent via the alchemy of Klein’s camera. Although his camera is often in motion, he is composing his shots as a photographer would, as opposed to a cinematographer. (Not surprisingly, this is a common thread among photographer/filmmakers.)

Klein frequently shoots at close range and sometimes in close-up, which can be a little dizzying. The handheld 16mm camera bobs and weaves, as he shifts from subject to subject. However, there is one sustained close-up of an elderly woman. The available light renders the background black, which effectively removes the old woman from the context of the station. The lighting and the angle enhance the sculptural quality of her face, resulting in a shot that resembles a traditional portrait. Klein’s formal training is in painting and sculpture (he is a famously self-taught photographer) and those influences are prevalent throughout.

On the other hand, it’s tricky to pinpoint any cinematic sources and influences on Gare de Lyon. There are commonalities with the emergent Direct Cinema movement, and it seems that a connection could be made to Dziga Vertov’s theories on film, which were highly influential in French film circles at the time. Around the same time, his friend and colleague (and occasional collaborator) Chris Marker was helping to usher in the cinéma verité movement, which influenced several of Klein’s later works. Yet Klein, always resolutely independent, seems to simply be following his own muse here.

Gare de Lyon qualifies as an experimental film in part because Klein was experimenting with new technology—in this case, the compact 16mm camera with sync sound that enabled him to walk around capturing different sights and sounds simultaneously. At the time, it was a revolutionary innovation that helped filmmaking become more accessible to people outside of the industry. (Prior to that, the options were silent 16mm and 8mm film, and sound had to be recorded separately if at all.) Sound is a crucial element in this film, adding further layers of meaning and texture.

Towards the end, there’s a short montage of individuals on a train about to depart the station gazing back at the camera, and, more often than not, smiling. They are shown with great sensitivity, and they represent a nice moment of connection between viewer and subject. Finally, we return to the glass booth glimpsed at the start of the film. A different station attendant, juxtaposed with a train reflected in the window pane in a cleverly composed shot, speaks into the microphone: “a bon voyage et bonnes vacances!” It’s a nice way to put a bow on the film.

Filmed in black and white, Gare de Lyon lacks the eye-poppingly colorful, ruinous splendour of Klein’s earlier pop-art spectacle Broadway By Light (1958), an influential short that marked Klein’s filmmaking debut. Broadway by Light is purposefully unsettling, a gaudy portrait of a garish, oppressive New York that enthralls and repulses in equal measure. Its eerie modern classical score (by French composer Maurice LeRoux) reinforces these sensations. In contrast, Gare De Lyon is much less visceral. Klein has a sentimentalist’s affection for Parisian culture and an expat’s contempt for the American way of life. As a result, Broadway by Light is a savage funhouse mirror reflection of NYC (see also: Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels) whereas Gare De Lyon is more of a humanistic slice-of-life study.

Klein would go on to make several satirical narrative features, including Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? which took aim at the fashion world, and Mr. Freedom, an acerbic critique of the Vietnam-era foreign policies of the country he expatriated himself from (not to mention one of the coolest, weirdest superhero movies ever made). Around that same time, Klein made landmark documentaries influenced by the cinema verité movement that focused on public figures such as Muhammad Ali and Eldridge Cleaver. His filmmaking heyday stretched across a 15-year period from the mid-1960s until the end of the 1970s, and he continued to direct up until the start of the 21st century.

While a number of Klein’s other films are available on DVD and the usual streaming services, Gare de Lyon remains elusive. Fortunately, a print is available to stream online courtesy of the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel.

Gare de Lyon (directed by William Klein). 16mm film (black and white), 12min., 1963.

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