Paris on Film: Movies to watch before your trip to Paris

Paris on Film: Movies to watch before your trip to Paris

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The Internet Movie Database lists over 1,500 films that have used Paris as a location. So, it should come as no surprise that one of the birthplaces of cinema (with the other birthplace somewhere in New Jersey) should serve as the backdrop for some very important works of art, or at least entertaining movies. The movies listed here are probably the best known of Paris movies (and a few that should be better known). Any of them should get you in a Paris state of mind or satisfy your Paris jones.

The two repositories of French cinema history, the Cinémathèque Française and the Musée du Cinema, have been in a state of flux over the last few years. The Cinémathèque and Musée were both damaged by a fire at the Palais de Chaillot in 1997. The Cinémathèque has since reopened at Chaillot and, with a second theatre on Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, has repertoire screenings of films by specific performers and filmmakers. The Cinémathèque was also the setting for the spark that helped start the 1968 student uprisings in Paris, recreated in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers.

Formerly housed in the Palais de Chaillot as well, the Musée du Cinema, founded by French cinematic demigod Henri Langlois, is currently being moved across town to, rather fittingly, the deserted American Culture Center building (designed by Frank Gehry) in the Bercy quartier. Their collection actually goes beyond French cinema to include artifacts from all over the world. Originally scheduled to be opened in 2002, the date has been rescheduled to sometime between now and the end of time, probably around the same time the Musée de l’Orangerie reopens. (Actually, it’s now scheduled to open in Fall 2006.)

While you’re in Paris, you could see any of the movies in this list at the Vidéothèque de Paris, 2 Grande Gallerie, Forum des Halles. You can view videos from thousands of titles that feature Paris in private viewing rooms, in addition to seeing features in the main theatre.

Here in the States, the Turner Classic Movies channel seems to reserve the month of April to show movies set in Paris. Check their website for more information. You can also sign up for an email reminder for specific movies if they are the TCM schedule.

Post Cards from Paris
Forget Paris

I’ve always thought that this movie should switch titles with the dreadful French Kiss. This film, starring Billy Crystal and Debra Winger, is far more romantic and funnier than the other one (which stars Meg Ryan at her most irritating and Kevin Kline as Pepe LePew). It’s a film for grown-ups, told in flashback by a group of friends explaining how Crystal and Winger met in Paris, fell in love and drifted apart. The first hour is filled with wonderful Paris locations, including a brief re-creation of the “Our Love Is Here to Stay” number from An American in Paris at the Pont Neuf.

French Postcards

American students explore the City of Lights, as well as their French counterparts, in the late 70s. It’s on VHS, not on DVD yet, but you might catch it on cable sometime. Probably a good one to share if you’re going to Paris with teenagers. Then again, maybe not.

The Last Time I Saw Paris

Elizabeth Taylor and Van Johnson star in this melodrama (adapted from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, of all things) about expatriate Americans living in Paris after World War II. While the story turns out to be a standard Hollywood soap opera, the locations and studio sets are worth taking a look. Unfortunately, the current DVD transfer from Madacy video is rather poor, so either wait for a better, fully restored version or see it when it’s shown on Turner Classic Movies

A New Kind of Love

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are back in Paris in some sort of concoction involving mistaken identity and high-priced call girls. I caught only the second half of this movie on the American Movie Classics channel recently but Paul Newman’s Montmartre apartment, with its amazing view of Sacre Coeur, makes me want to see the first half. It looks like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it’s not on DVD.

Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter)

I’ll start with a caveat: this is a movie you’ll either love or loathe. Even Robert Altman fans are split, and most aren’t fond of it. It does help if you have at least a passing interest in haute couture, especially the Paris fashion houses, but don’t take it all too seriously. There are several reasons to enjoy this film. One, obviously, is its Paris setting. There are plenty of location shots throughout the city to make up for any of the film’s perceived shortcomings. Two, Sophia Loren is absolutely gorgeous in this movie. Three, it is pretty funny, overall, not laugh-out-loud funny but amusing enough for a look.

Absolutely Fabulous (Series 4), the “Paris” episode

When Patsy is asked to participate in a magazine photo shoot in Paris, Edina, Saffy and Bubble tag along. The best episode of the fourth series, this is packed with great locations, including Café de Flore, Pont Alexandre III, Buddha Bar, Avenue Montaigne, and the Eiffel Tower.

Paris at Street Level

Based on the mystery novel by Delacorta, Diva follows a romantic young postman who becomes enravelled in a net of intrigue involving an opera singer, recording pirates, gangsters, the police and a pair of unlikely saviors. The Tuileries is featured in a moody, romantic scene and the famous chase through the Metro takes place between the Concorde and Opera stations.

Le Divorce

Set mostly in the Saint-Germain quartier, the film follows a pair of American sisters living in Paris as one divorces her husband and the other begins an affair with a married man. It’s an interesting look at a few of the cultural differences between Americans and the French, mostly the idea of adultery. Most of us can empathize with Isabelle (Kate Hudson) as she struggles to communicate with a couple of lingerie salesladies. And I love Glenn Close’s musings about French women and their scarves. Maybe I should read the book.

Le Battement d’ailes du Papillon (Happenstance)

Audrey Tautou (Amelie) stars as a young woman who begins her day on the métro finding out that she will meet her soul mate. After that, small incidents begin chains of life-altering events inside and outside of the Péripherique, though much of it takes place in the 20th Arrondissement. It’s fascinating watching the story weave in and out of a disparate collection of characters.

Last Tango in Paris
The Dreamers

Though filmed near 30 years apart, these two films by Bernardo Bertolucci depict Paris at almost the same time. Last Tango (which now seems a bit dated) was filmed in 1972, while The Dreamers, made in 2002, is set in 1968. The explicit sexual themes of both films might be too much for some viewers. Much of Tango takes place in the Sixteenth Arrondissement, with the Pont de Bir Hakeim featured prominently. The kids in The Dreamers live and play in the Quartier Latin.

A Little Romance

Adorable film about two young teenagers in love for the first time. It starts off in Paris as the daughter (Diane Lane, of Under the Tuscan Sun, in her debut role) of an American businessman meets a mischievous, movie-loving French boy. After listening to the romantic tales of an elderly man (Laurence Olivier), the pair run away to Venice to kiss under the Bridge of Sighs at sundown to ensure their love forever.

Monsieur Ibrahim

A Jewish teenager befriends a Muslim grocer in the Porte Saint Denis neighborhood in the 1960s. As street-level as it gets, this is the Paris you’ll never see from a tour bus.

The Ninth Gate

Strange, ultimately hokey, thriller about a rare-book dealer trying to locate books illustrated by Satan. The gorgeous locations on and around the Iles de la Cité and Saint-Louis make up for some of the story’s preposterousness.

Place Vendôme

Nice little intrigue involving la Belle Eternelle Catherine Deneuve and stolen diamonds, showing off some of the nicer parts of Paris and the fabulous apartments within.

Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows)

François Truffaut’s auspicious debut film is set in the very un-Amelie Montmartre of the 1950s. Like many of the Nouvelle Vague films, this movie has a gritty, realistic look that makes the Paris locations feel like you’re there. Truffaut himself is interred at the Montmartre Cemetery.

Chacun Cherche Son Chat (When the Cat’s Away)

Modest movie about a woman who searches the Bastille quartier for her lost cat. This will give you a good look at a Parisian neighborhood off the tourist route and the people who live there. (Not yet on DVD in the U.S.)

À Bout de Souffle (Breathless)
Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders)

Probably two of the three best-known French New Wave films (Les Quatre Cents Coups would be the third). À Bout de Souffle has more recognizable sights than Bande à Part does but the latter is more cohesive and entertaining as a movie. Both movies have the feel of a Hollywood B-grade crime movie, which was Godard’s intention. Bande à Part features the memorable scene of the trio of slackers dashing through the Louvre in about nine and a half minutes, which is faithfully recreated in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, as is the finale of À Bout de Souffle.

L’Esprit de Paris
Amelie (Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain)

Ask anyone who loves Paris to name their favorite movie set in Paris and it’s more than likely they’ll mention this one. It showcases the Montmartre quartier as the movie follows a young lady, sheltered from the world by her over-protective parents, who begins a regime of good deeds and pranks on the people of the neighborhood.

This article about the effect of Amelie on the Montmartre area appeared in The New York Times shortly after the movie became popular.

An American in Paris

The opening sequence of the most famous sights in Paris is the only part actually filmed in Paris but this classic MGM musical captures the spirit of the City of Lights quite well.


With a few familiar location shots and an exquisitely detailed production, Gigi recreates La Belle Époque most grandly.

Moulin Rouge (1952)
French Cancan (1956)
Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Three very different movies centered around the most famous nightclub in the world. John Huston’s Moulin Rouge is the biography of Henri Toulouse-Latrec (played by José Ferrer), the post-impressionist painter who immortalized the Moulin Rouge and its denizens in paintings and posters. It’s a fascinating look at some of the people (like La Goulue, the choreographer of the Cancan) who appeared in Toulouse-Latrec’s works and the most authentic recreation of the Moulin Rouge of the three films listed here. The artist himself comes across as a bitter, self-loathing artist who drowns his self-pity in cognac.

In his first French production since returning from a self-imposed exile in America, Jean Renoir’s French Cancan tells a fictionalized story of the creation of the Moulin Rouge. Given that Renoir himself was born in Montmartre and his father, the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste, lived and painted in the area for years, it’s no surprise that he captures the look and feel of the quartier in the Belle Époque so well. It’s an engaging backstage love story, a bit like the recent Moulin Rouge! (with which it shares a “the show must go on” finale) but not so tragic.

Baz Lurhman’s Moulin Rouge! is an overstuffed pastry of a movie musical, adapting contemporary pop songs and tragic love story and whipping them up into a dazzlingly and dizzying pastiche of MGM-style musicality and modern, attention-deficient cynicism. The movie has its cultists (mostly from the MTV generation) and its detractors, so know that not everyone will enjoy the movie.

Paris Blues

Set in the jazzy St. Germain quartier, this film will make you want to scour the neighborhood to see if any those smoky, basement jazz clubs of fifties Paris are left. Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier star as expatriate musicians who meet and fall in love with two American girls (Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll) on vacation in Paris. With a cast like that, and a cameo by Louis Armstrong himself, how could you go wrong? (Not on DVD.)

Paris Brûle-t-il? (Is Paris Burning?)

This presentation of the 1944 Liberation of Paris shows that the French weren’t the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” conservative Republican pundits would have us believe. It wasn’t like the American tanks just rolled in and the Germans skittered away; it was a tough, street-by-street guerrilla battle. The Hollywood movie-star cameos (Kirk Douglas as Patton, for one) are a bit distracting but don’t detract from the overall picture which focuses on the French Resistance’s struggle to reclaim the city from the Nazis and the Nazi general struggling to decide if he should follow Hitler’s order to decimate the city. This film will also add deeper historical perspective on some of the places you visit on your next trip.

Audrey dans Paris
Funny Face
Love in the Afternoon
Paris When It Sizzles

Audrey Hepburn turns out to be the movies’ favorite tour guide of Paris, whether she’s playing a local, tourist or ex-pat. She stars in four movies set in Paris, all of which are quite enjoyable. And, as it turns out, all four were shot in Paris and show some very lovely locations.

Probably the most postcardy film of the bunch, Funny Face is also the best of her Paris films. The wonderfully rousing “Bonjour, Paris!” number alone should get you packing for your trip. Unlike An American in Paris, much of Funny Face was shot in Paris and the locations help get you past the May-December casting of Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, which does get distracting. If you can’t get past it or simply hate musicals, then just watch “Bonjour, Paris!” and the fabulous photo shoot sequence. That’s worth the price of the rental.

Audrey finds herself in another May-December romance in Love in the Afternoon, this time with Gary Cooper. The age gap is a bit more distracting here, though Cooper was two years younger than Astaire at the time. Wilder covers it up a bit by shooting Cooper in the shadows during the more intimate scenes. Maurice Chevalier steals the picture, though, as Ariane’s father, a private detective hired to investigate Frank Flanagan (Cooper), who’s having an affair (among many) with an Englishman’s wife. Most of the action takes place in either Flanagan’s suite at the Hotel Ritz and in the Chavasses’ apartment, though the opening tour presents some of the most beautiful shots of Paris ever in the movies.

In Charade she’s the widow of a veteran who gets caught up in an intrigue with her late husband’s war buddies. One of those buddies may or may not be Cary Grant. The climactic scene takes place at the Palais Royal (sans Daniel Buren’s columns), and the Hotel Saint Jacques where Audrey stays in the movie is still open.

ParisWhen It Sizzles has Audrey as a muse for William Holden (as an off-the-wagon, blocked screenwriter, relatively closer to Audrey’s age), who both get caught up in their imaginations as they try to hammer out a script in 48 hours. It’s pretty campy, right down to Noel Coward as a Hollywood producer, so don’t take the story too seriously. With all the in-jokes, it seems like it’s funnier now than when it was released. The Paris sights are sparse but picture-postcard perfect and even scenes filmed in the studio look like authentic.

Next time you’re in Paris, think about looking for some of the locations used in these movies. Travel to rue de Campagne Premiere in Montparnasse to see where Jean-Paul Belmondo met his fate in À Bout de Souffle or cross the Pont de Bir Hakeim to retrace Marlon Brando’s steps in Last Tango in Paris. Or just dance with your sweetheart at the Pont Neuf, just like Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron did in An American in Paris. Paris is not just the City of Lights, it’s the City of Cinema.


Larry Guzman is a freelance writer living in upstate New York, and makes a trip annually to France. He’s planning his next trip to Paris for New Year’s Eve and another tour of the Loire Valley in the fall.