26 March 2011

La Nostalgie: Le Centre Commercial

The Place Carrée, inside the Forum des Halles

Americans are often surprised to find shopping malls in France. But the French invented the department store,* so they naturally pounced on the American concept. And to a degree, a mall is just a variation on the theme of the French passage, parallel rows of independent shops that face each other, under a roof covering or skylight. And the passage itself evolved (in the 19th century) from stately arcades.

How the French used to do it:
The Galerie Vivienne, one of Paris’ more famous passages.

According to the French documentary series I saw the other night, the first centre commercial in France opened on the outskirts of Paris in 1969, and it was quite a chic affair. For the first time, big-name fashion designers opened stores outside central Paris, and prosperous French families flocked to the place. Saturday at the mall became a family tradition, and soon, there were shopping malls all over the country — including the town of Plaisir, not far from Beynes. Most, if not all of these centres commerciaux are less expensive than the original, but chances are that all would look familiar to you: apart from the brand names, you’d hardly know you weren’t in America.

P'tite photo of the Grand Plaisir mall, near Beynes

Suburban malls tend to focus on one “grande surface,” usually a hypermarket such as Auchan, Carrefour, Marché U, or Le Clerc, with other, smaller shops around it. The mall in central Paris, the monstrously ugly Forum des Halles, is too big, perhaps, to be dominated by any one store: it goes down four levels, and includes a swimming pool, multi-screen movie theater, municipal library, subway and commuter-rail stations.

Since France banned indoor smoking in public places a few years ago,
this atrium at the Forum des Halles has become a refuge
for nicotine fanatics.

The Forum mall replaced the city’s central food market, Les Halles, a bustling yet beautiful collection of soaring, cast-iron pavilions that Emile Zola once compared to a Gothic cathedral. Though the pavilions had deteriorated by the early 1970s, tearing them down — and transplanting the market to the nearby town of Rungis — stirred plenty of controversy and really did change many people’s way of life. In the neighborhood around les Halles, for example, small cafés served hungry market-workers at all hours: apparently a bowl of onion soup at 4 A.M. was a popular ritual, all but vanished today.**

There goes the neighborhood:
Construction site at the Forum des Halles

I despise the Forum des Halles and go there as seldom as possible. That antipathy informs my desire to see Touche pas à la femme blanche (Don’t Touch the White Woman), Marco Ferreri’s 1973 film starring Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni. A burlesque of American Westerns and Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, it was shot on the construction site of the present-day mall. But it doesn’t seem to get revived much; I’ve never managed to see the picture.***

*NOTE: The world’s first department store, Au Bon Marché, still operates on the Left Bank in Paris. Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames is a fictionalized account of the rise of the department store and the devastating consequences it had on mom-and-pop stores in Paris — comparable to what Americans saw more than a century later, when Wal-Mart came to town.

**Because Paris is emphatically not “the city that never sleeps,” it’s hard to get a cheap meal after midnight — or after 10 or 11 P.M., really. The neighborhood around les Halles still boasts some all-night restaurants, but they’re comparatively expensive. Les Halles is the setting of Zola’s novel Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris).

***As the Forum des Halles undergoes renovations today, much of it has been turned into a construction site again, looking very much like pictures I’ve seen of Ferreri’s film. (Except there aren’t any French guys dressed as American cavalry, or white guys dressed as Native Americans, or Catherine Deneuve. Otherwise — just the same.)

Deneuve as the titular white woman in Touche pas


Mikebench said...

My dear, you can watch Touche pas a la femme blanche right here: http://www.worldscinema.com/2010/06/marco-ferreri-touche-pas-la-femme.html

If you want help putting this together, email me!

William V. Madison said...

Ah, but you presuppose that I have a device that will permit me to watch! I'm using my brother's spare laptop, since my own is en panne these days. I post the link for anyone else who wants to take a look at the movie.

Mikebench said...

But your laptop should suffice (or your brother's spare one), provided there is about 1 GB of free space.

William V. Madison said...

It's not a question of memory, it's a question of willpower: this machine won't even let me watch YouTube clips. Seriously, I've waited this long to see the movie; I can wait a little while longer.