Paris in the Movies: Which Film Best Evokes the City of Light?

Paris in the Movies: Which Film Best Evokes the City of Light?

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The café in Amélie, ©2001 - Miramax
The café in Amélie, ©2001 – Miramax

We asked Parisians… Which film best evokes Paris? Whether a French film or a Hollywood production, new or classic work… what movie captures the magic of la Capitale? Paris is so multi-faceted, and so distorted by romanticism—or prejudices—that it was only natural for our anecdotal list to be diverse. The answers from the motley sample of locals often reflected the particular sentiments of the responder, or their mood of the moment. No one answered An American in Paris (which was made entirely in “Hollywood, USA,” as the credits proclaim)– despite a successful musical adaptation which recently travelled from Paris to Broadway. And no one gave what would have been my own personal choice, A Bout de Souffle (Breathless), Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and the American Jean Seberg. Other honourable non-mentions: Paris Vu Par …, a New Wave compilation film and Quai des Orfevres, a classic policier directed by the noir great Henri-Georges Clouzot. In no particular order:

Audrey Tautou as Amelie, © 2001 - Miramax
Audrey Tautou as Amelie, © 2001 – Miramax

1. Amélie (2001)—this film, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, was a big hit in France and in the U.S. too, and made a star out of Audrey Tautou. It portrays one fabled corner of Paris—Montmartre—in a whimsical style that reflects the baroque comic vision of the director, but also the variegated nature of the quartier, which even today is filled with artists, bohemians, hustlers, sex workers, immigrants, and tourists.

The poster for Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles
The poster for Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles

2. Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles (2004) A Very Long Engagement—Yet another film directed by Jeunet and starring Tautou. The film takes place during the First World War, and tells the story of a woman searching for her poilu husband. It portrays a long-ago Paris and despite a reprise of Amelie’s comic whimsy, also reminds us of the lasting impact of WWI on French sensibilities.

The poster for Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris
The poster for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris

3. Midnight in Paris (2011)—The most frequently cited American film (Woody Allen’s films aren’t really “Hollywood”). Allen and the French have had a long-lasting love affair dating back decades. Allen beautifully filmed numerous sites, obvious and less obvious, in the city. The narrative is, appropriately, a romantic fantasy which contrasts Lost Generation Paris and neurotic present-day American tourists. The film won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and featured a new generation of actors, American and French, including Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, and Marion Cotillard.

La Traversée de Paris (1956)
Still from La Traversée de Paris (1956)

4. La Traversée de Paris (1956)—a surprising number of people mentioned this film, which I’ve never seen. It was made by one of the foremost pre-Nouvelle Vague directors, Claude Autant-Lara. The film takes a comic look at a dark moment in the past, portraying black marketeers during the Occupation (which wasn’t all that long before the film was made). It starred French cinema icons Jean Gabin and Bourvil, and introduced in a small role the comedian who became France’s best-loved comic actor, Louis de Funes.

La Grande Vadrouille (1966)
Still from La Grande Vadrouille (1966)

5. La Grande Vadrouille (1966)—Made by Gérard Oury, another film that portrays Paris during the Occupation (though it also ventures beyond the city). Like La Traversée de Paris, this film treats a dark time with the absurd, in this case farce—Louis de Funes is the undisputed star of the film. La Grande Vadrouille isn’t well known outside France, but it’s the country’s biggest grossing film ever. It’s one of those films re-broadcast on TV every year, just as The Wizard of Oz used to be in the US.

Hotel du Nord
Hotel du Nord

6. Hotel du Nord (1938)—This classic film was directed on the eve of WWII by Marcel Carné, one of France’s greatest directors, and features the legendary icon Arletty (whose reputation remains under a cloud because she blithely continued her career during the Occupation). It’s a Grand Hotel-type portrait of numerous characters, but more melodramatic and atmospheric. Ironically, the Canal St. Martin quarter is now one of Paris’ most thoroughly gentrified neighborhoods.

Paris (2008)
Poster from Paris (2008)

7. Paris (2008): Cedric Klapisch is known for comic films with a genuinely human touch. Paris is a bittersweet film about a dancer sidelined by an illness. He uses his newly sedentary and solitary life to observe others around him. This is a frame for several stories featuring some of France’s best actors: Fabrice Luchini, Juliet Binoche, Romain Duris, Melanie Laurent.

Two Days in Paris
Two Days in Paris

8. Two Days in Paris (2007): Directed by actress Julie Delpy. She also wrote, edited, wrote the soundtrack, and starred in the film. In other words it’s an effort at an auteur film, not so much in the French tradition, but the New York Woody Allen vein. In fact the film starts in New York, but the troubled couple it depicts go to Paris to resolve their situation, only to complicate it.

Still from Le Jour Se Lève (1939)
Still from Le Jour Se Lève (1939)

9. Le Jour Se Lève(1939): Another film directed by Marcel Carné. It’s a melodramatic subject, tracing the events that led to a murder, but poetically filmed, and written by one of France’s great twentieth-century poets, Jacques Prévert. It’s been said the film was made to avoid any possible political innuendo, but in hindsight it’s easy to extend its fatalism to the overall mood of the time.

10. Peur Sur La Ville (1975): The unlikeliest film on the list (at least in my book), this film does star Jean-Paul Belmondo, the most iconic actor of French post-war cinema. Belmondo first emerged as a New Wave actor in Godard films like Breathless and Pierrot le Fou. He eventually became a more conventional, but often tongue-in-cheek, actor, a combination of Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds. Peur Sur La Ville, in which Belmondo plays a police commissioner tracking down a terrorist (and does his own stunts) was a smash hit, and cemented his status as France’s signature mega-movie star.

Peur Sur la Ville
Peur Sur la Ville

 

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Dimitri Keramitas was born and raised in Connecticut, USA, and was educated at the University of Hartford, Sorbonne, and the University of London, and holds degrees in literature and law. He has lived in Paris for years, and directs a training company and translation agency. In addition, he has worked as a film critic for both print and on-line publications, including Bonjour Paris and France Today. He is a contributing editor to Movies in American History. In addition he is an award-winning writer of fiction, whose stories have been published in many literary journals. He is the director of the creative writing program at WICE, a Paris-based organization. He is also a director at the Paris Alumni Network, an organization linking together several hundred professionals, and is the editor of its newletter. The father of two children, Dimitri not only enjoys Paris living but returning to the US regularly and traveling in Europe and elsewhere.

17 COMMENTS

  1. I can’t believe no-one nominated Eric Rohmer’s wonderful love-song to the City of Light, Rendezvous A Paris! One of my favourite films

    • 1) That film is considered to be a very slight film overall within Rohmer’s canon. 2) However, I love the movie, and it’s one of my favorites by Rohmer; cheers for mentioning it! It certainly makes my list. 😉

  2. I adored Amelie, so much so, that I took a friend to see it for my second time. I liked Midnight in Paris for the scenery, but really Amelie was my favorite for it’s charm and scenery of Montmartre.

    • I agree Owen Wilson is not a good actor but the scenery made that movie worth watching. Amelie is my favorite.

  3. For capturing the beauty and the feel of the many neighborhoods, for acting and for story line, Paris Mon Amour gets my vote!

  4. I loved l” les chansons d’amour” (the love songs ) by Christophe Honnoré depicting the young lives of 2 men and 2 women in the slightly less fancy Paris of La Bastille and gare du Nord. Above all the freshness and complexity and beauty of the characters. Paris is a city of light but also of love and Who knows what happens behind the high windows in the heart of the young ?

  5. THE ABSOLUTE BEST AND MOST ROMANTIC MOVIE FILMED IN PARIS WAS “CHARADE” (1961) WITH CARY GRANT AND AUDREY HEPBURN. FABULOUS.

  6. Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 might just be my #1. She wanders through Paris, takes a taxi ride through the city while gazing out the window (special treat, we get to hear the radio play as well), listens to some ye-ye songs in a bustling Parisian cafe, takes a bus… Wonderful film, with Paris as a major character in the film.

  7. Paris, je t’aime- anthology of five minute stories by different directors and with different casts. And Avenue Montaigne, interwoven stories centering around one
    Fabulous part of that street.

  8. Paris Romance which I saw in Europa, Europa TV. A boy and a girl walking or riding the Metro through Paris while they sing French songs and give very brief descriptions of what we are being shown and of it’s history.

  9. Je suis d’accord. Ratatouille is a brilliant film, and its depiction of Paris is highly evocative and deeply felt. I had seen it in the original English version when it first came out, and then again last year in French on a transatlantic Air France flight. As you might imagine, as good as it was in English, it was even better in French.

  10. “Before Sunset” by Richard Linklater, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, is an absolute love letter to strolling through the streets of Paris.

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