Paris on Film: A Cinematic Journey

In celebration of Bastille Day, New Plaza Cinema and film historian Max Alvarez presented a zoom program on Paris on Film: A Cinematic Journey. Paris has always been a sophisticated (presumably) and popular setting for movies, but over the years, much has changed.

In the early days, films with a Paris setting provided a tourist’s eye-view of a visit to Paris. Before the end of World War II, few Americans had been there, and movies, if they saw them, were their only guides on what to expect. In the early days, Paris scenes were all shot on back lots somewhere in California, but after the War, that was no longer tenable. People knew better.

Max himself visited France as a teenager, but because he’d seen quite a few real French movies, he did not feel “foreign,” and was very comfortable with the mores and behavior of the Parisians. Still, Hollywood had its point of view, and presented the City of Light much as a tourist might view it. Contrast Vincent Minelli’s musicals, An American in Paris (1951), shot almost entirely in California, with his later Gigi (1958), shot on location. Another director from that period, Stanley Donen, likewise shot Funny Face (1957), with Audrey Hepburn, Kay Thompson, and Fred Astaire in Paris.

The musicals were a rather romantic and sweet take on Parisian life. But meanwhile, French and other European filmmakers were giving it a bit more of a cynical edge. In the late 1950s, the French “new wave” directors came to the fore. Generally, they filmed everything on location, preferring black and white. Their focus was not on the lovely French countryside, but on the bustle and grit of the cities, often with darker themes. Examples are: François Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows (1959), Jules et Jim (1960), and Jean-Luc Godard’s edgier crime drama Breathless (1960). Some of these filmmakers filmed real street-scenes with hidden cameras. The everyday people you see are exactly that.

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci and his skilled cinematographer Vittorio Storaro made three increasingly dark films in Paris: The Conformist (1970), an anti-fascist tale that took advantage of the city’s famous “blue light”; Last Tango in Paris (1972) with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider; and The Dreamers (2003), a violent film about political and sexual passions.

Alvarez says you can think of the films featuring Paris as reflecting “A Tale of Two Cities.” Most of them that come to the United States have “tidied up” and prettified Paris (Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is a current example.)

A few French films show the other side, the desolate, desperate banlieues, the suburbs peopled by immigrants and decrepit low-income housing. Director Mathieu Kassovitz’s Hate (below)is an example. Such films show that while Americans might want to think of Paris as a place not beset by the kinds of social conflicts that affect our country, that is a pleasant and inaccurate fiction.

2 thoughts on “Paris on Film: A Cinematic Journey

  1. I’ve never been to Paris, but I have a lot of romantic notions about the place. Having seen some of the movies you mentioned brought back a lot of memories. My father was born in France (Marseilles, where the accent is strong), and my boyhood recollections of my grandmother and Nana speaking broken English and French is still vivid. My buddy, Geof Darrow, a great artist who does movie concept work and graphic novels studied in France and married a beautiful French girl. They live there now, as does actor Richard Belzer, with whom I wrote two novels. Bogey in my all-time favorite movie, Casablanca: “We’ll always have Paris.”

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