The Bourse de Commerce as cinematographic subject

Don’t Touch the White Woman!
January 11, 2021

The Bourse de Commerce as cinematographic subject

“Don’t Touch the White Woman!” is a French-Italian film directed by Marco Ferreri, released in 1974. The action takes place in and around the giant excavation site of the Halles, as well as in the Bourse de Commerce.

Reading time
5 mn
By Jean-Yves de Lépinay,
Forum des Images

“It’s our very own Sistine Chapel!”

That’s what exclaims General Terry (Philippe Noiret), as he shows General Custer (Marcello Mastroianni) the remarkable paintings that line the lower part of the Bourse de Commerce’s cupola.

During the very first scenes of this surprising film, we can glimpse a few details of the paintings, a celebration of international trade. We see scenes depicting North America, bloody battles against Native Americans. By comparing these paintings to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo depicted scenes from the Book of Genesis, Ferreri reminds his viewers that the development of international trade and colonial expansion is the touchstone of our economic system.

While Don’t Touch the White Woman! was a flop at the time of its release, it has become over time a cult movie, thanks to Ferreri’s surprising, extraordinary decision to use an immense construction site, dug into the very heart of Paris from 1971 to 1973, as the unlikely setting for a reenactment of the famous 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, the final victory of Native American warriors over US soldiers.

Touche pas à la femme blanche

Ferreri in no way attempts to recreate that battle’s original setting; on the contrary, he openly acknowledges his filming location by showcasing the destruction of the pavilions designed by Baltard. He shows the Eglise Saint-Eustache perched atop an artificial cliff and the Bourse de Commerce towering above the giant excavation. In so doing, he transforms this anachronistic farce into a sarcastic attack against urban renewal and, more broadly, against the excesses of capitalist society. Ferreri emphasizes this point from the film’s very start: the action opens on a meeting of a few “representatives of the country’s economy”— or, as they put it, “representatives of progress and civilization.” Installed inside the Bourse de Commerce, here the seat of government and the military, they cynically conclude that it has become necessary for them to exterminate the last remaining occupants of the “hole”— the Native Americans, who represent all those excluded by economic development.

This extermination must take place immediately. They must show no mercy. “The more we kill this year, the fewer we’ll have to kill next year.” Why is this punishment necessary? Because “those people refuse to acknowledge the value of private property and its advantages. They reject the principles of egoism with which Providence has endowed human nature.”

The entire movie is a strident attack, with a deliberately eccentric, even childish, virulence. It is also an extremely rare opportunity to see this majestic monument and its superb cupola showcased onscreen. Don’t Touch the White Woman! is the only movie in which the Bourse de Commerce is used as a set and becomes a veritable character in the narrative.

Countless movies have been shot in Paris. Filmmakers have tirelessly captured the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe from the Place de l’Étoile, Notre-Dame, Montmartre, the Latin Quarter, the Louvre, and so many other locales. But the Bourse de Commerce, despite its noble architecture, has rarely attracted their gaze.

It is likely that this lacuna was due to the astonishing visual impact of the area surrounding the Bourse de Commerce. The former Halles de Paris, Paris’s fresh-food market, captivated filmmakers’ focus until its closure in 1969.

The demolition of the so-called “belly of Paris”— a reference to Émile Zola’s novel Le Ventre de Paris— then the appearance, for several long months, of the famous “Trou des Halles” (the hole of the Halles), drew attention to the neighbouring Bourse de Commerce, a distinguished building that, until then, had remained in the shadows. Marco Ferreri’s genius was to recognize that this building, dedicated to commerce, could become a striking metaphor for the excesses of capitalism.

The demolition of the so-called “belly of Paris”, then the appearance, for several long months, of the famous “Trou des Halles”, drew attention to the neighbouring Bourse de Commerce, a distinguished building that, until then, had remained in the shadows.

At the film’s end, after the defeat of their armies, the zealous representatives of economic power flee the battlefield in a hot-air balloon, flying over the city’s disembowelled landscape. The curvature of the balloon’s dome briefly parallels that of the Bourse de Commerce’s dome. It almost seems as though their headquarters— their war room— was flying off toward other battles, abandoning the monument once dedicated to the development of international trade, henceforth deprived of its aura.

The “Trou des Halles” is now just a fragment in the memory of some Parisians. The Bourse de Commerce no longer lies in the shadows of the picturesque central market, of the “ventre de Paris.” The nostalgic memory of ancient Paris is slowly fading.

Touche pas à la femme blanche

But the neighbourhood of Les Halles remains at the heart of Paris today. Now located in the central axis of the Nelson Mandela Garden, facing the new Canopée des Halles, the Bourse de Commerce has found a new vocation— and perhaps it will once again inspire filmmakers.