Paris. A cat scratches at a park bench, mewing and whining. A woman approaches and unwraps some remnants of food from an old newspaper. As she starts to feed the pathetic scraps to the cat, the camera moves past her towards two figures, a man and a woman, who are walking across a lawn. Their backs are turned to us but we can hear their voices. They are discussing a contract. They pledge that their love for each other will always come first. It is a ‘necessary love’. They agree that both of them may have as many affairs, as many sexual relationships, as they wish. But they must tell each other everything about these ‘contingent loves’. Nothing can ever be held back. They are to be completely ‘transparent’ to each other. Their alliance will be forever unshaken. They stop walking and seal their contract with an embrace and a kiss.
Still in close-up, we cut to the same two figures—let’s call them Simone and Jean-Paul—before we pull back to a wider shot. They are in a train, with two battered old bicycles crammed in the aisle in front of them. Suddenly, there is the threatening sound of approaching planes and gunfire. The train stops and everyone dives out onto the track. Simone and Jean-Paul manhandle their bikes through the carriage door and scramble into a ditch. The train is strafed, but no-one is hurt. They climb out of the ditch, get on their bikes and pedal towards the city. No-one pays the least attention to them. Everyone is hurrying somewhere, wearing dishevelled, shabby clothes.
Paris. Michel’s apartment. A party, with minimal, wartime food, but a lot of cheap drink. Simone is wearing a borrowed red angora sweater, huge blue fake pearls, a much-worn wool skirt and her father’s old tweed jacket. As the party warms up and everyone is drinking a lot, guests start looking at the clock, but their host invites them to forget about the curfew and stay for the night. Jean-Paul puts down his pipe, sits at the piano and sings sentimental nightclub blues. Friends join in, accompanying him with saucepan lids and other improvised instruments. Laughter. Simone listens, aloof. Eventually everyone crashes out in armchairs. At dawn, the two make their way home through deserted streets. There are signs of German occupation. Jean-Paul explains his idea for a film that would be shot entirely through subjective camera. Gunshots in the distance. They huddle together in a doorway. When they reach Simone’s hotel, they embrace briefly before he leaves and walks away. She goes into the building alone.
A few days later, Simone is out walking through the streets, a notebook in her hand, watching and observing. Her wooden-soled clogs clop on the pavement. There is a burst of machine-gun fire. Round the corner, bodies are being carried off on stretchers. Simone stands watching as a concierge comes out and starts to scrub the blood off the step. Later—it is another day—civilian fighters storm a building and come down with a group of Japanese prisoners, who have been firing from the roof. The crowd pulls down their trousers and laughs at their shame. More blood on the ground. Trucks are ambushed. Shoppers dodge gunfire crossing the street. Simone hurries on.
Simone and Jean-Paul walk down the street together, towards a restaurant to meet friends. Suddenly they are interrupted: a group of boys on bikes shout that the Germans have asked for a cease-fire. Simone and Jean-Paul hurry back the way they came. In Simone’s hotel room they listen to the bbc, while gunshots echo close by. The next day there are barricades across the streets. A resistance fighter draped in a tricolour flag fires a volley into the air. Another passing cyclist shouts news of the Liberation to Simone and Jean-Paul. Bonfires are lit outside the restaurant, bells peal, couples embrace, everyone dances. The siren sounds for a single plane and there is the distant sound of bombs, but the dancing continues. Simone and Jean-Paul are happy together, lost in the throng.
The following day, crowds fill the streets singing. Simone is alone. She sees American gis chewing gum, giving the V-sign. Revellers hold up streamers, escorting tricolour-painted vans. She is on her way to Michel’s apartment, where Jean-Paul has already arrived. Their friends gather there to celebrate, and one of them brings a gi. Jean-Paul explains to the soldier his theory that the French could never again be as truly free as they were under German occupation, when every act of resistance counted, when so much was at stake. The American is bemused.
Simone and Jean-Paul are sitting together in a café writing. Simone is slowly translating Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer into French in long-hand. Jean-Paul is scribbling much faster, peering down at the paper through his bottle-bottomed glasses, pausing only to puff on his pipe. He is wearing a sheepskin jacket; her unwashed hair is gathered up under a turban. One of their friends, Albert, rushes in and shouts excitedly to Jean-Paul that he has good news. Jean-Paul is to go to America as part of a delegation of French journalists. He stops scribbling. He is elated. Drinks all round. Simone talks enviously of the things he will hear and see—jazz, skyscrapers, gangsters. She promises to have her Dos Passos translation finished for him before he leaves.