Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” offers a swoony vision of the City of Light, full of romance and magic. In the “The Bourne Identity,” where Matt Damon races through the streets in a red Mini Cooper, the city is fraught with tension and danger.
Paris in the movies has always been special. Sometimes, it’s a valentine, other times a maze.
In a bygone era, Paris was often created on a backlot in Hollywood. Or France.
One of those oldies is Marcel Carne’s “Les Enfants du Paradis” (1945), a masterpiece about a 19th-century theatrical troupe that was filmed almost entirely on the largest studio set in French history. (Because it was shot during the Nazi occupation, starving extras often stole food from the set.)
The recreation of the “Boulevard du Crime” theater district ran almost a quarter mile. It was worth every inch, if only for the scene where Arletty’s mysterious street woman Garance tells Pierre Brasseur, “Oh, Paris is such a big place.” Brasseur, playing a great romantic actor, responds, “No, Paris is very small for those, like us, with such a grand love.” Balzac would have loved this film.
Especially in the 1950s, there was a slew of Hollywood musicals where Paris was a confectionary fantasy.
Vincente Minnelli’s “An American in Paris” (1951) featured Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron -- she also starred as a wistful courtesan in Minnelli’s Paris-based “Gigi” (1958) -- in a blissful pas de deux by the Seine underneath the Pont Neuf.
Stanley Donen’s “Funny Face” (1957), another film with music by George Gershwin, stars Fred Astaire as a Richard Avedon-like high-fashion photographer and Audrey Hepburn as a beatnik bookseller. (Hepburn also co-starred with Cary Grant in Donen’s Parisian thriller “Charade” (1963), the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made.)
Speaking of musicals set in Paris, remember that Allen made a less-than-stellar one -- “Everyone Says I Love You’ (1996) -- where Goldie Hawn dances in mid-air beneath the arches of Notre Dame and sings “I’m Through With Love.”
Billy Wilder’s “Irma la Douce” (1963), adapted from a stage musical, stars Shirley MacLaine as a happy hooker. The film’s red-light district is, at best, pink.
Much underrated is Martin Ritt’s “Paris Blues” (1961), a love story about expatriate jazz musicians featuring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll. The real star, however, is Duke Ellington’s hot jazz score.
Hiding From Nazis
Paris isn’t always synonymous with romance in the movies. Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959), starring Jean- Pierre Leaud as a sensitive juvenile delinquent, shows off a distinctly unglamorous landscape of rundown alleyways and amusement parks.
It gives a far more evocative view of Paris than Truffaut’s studio-bound period piece, “The Last Metro (1980), where Catherine Deneuve plays an actress hiding her Jewish husband in a theater basement during the Nazi occupation of Paris.
Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” (1955), is a gritty noir about a jewelry heist in the Place Vendome district. Bernardo Bertolucci’s great “Last Tango in Paris” (1972), starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider as fated sex partners, is a romance only in the most despairing sense.
In Roman Polanski’s “Frantic” (1988), the urban beauty of Paris is rendered creepily impersonal. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” (1965) uses the city’s urban landscape to create a futuristic anonymity. And the Paris of Godard’s “Breathless” (1960), with Jean Seberg hawking the International Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysee, is as iconic as Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Bogie snarl and fedora.
I’m not overly enamored of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie” (2001), starring Audrey Tatou as a shy waitress. It can’t match Louis Malle’s “Zazie dans le metro” (1961) as a high-speed Parisian fantasia. But there’s no denying it makes you want to hang out in Amelie’s Montmartre and sip espresso at the Cafe des Deux Moulins.
I much prefer Richard Linklater’s romantic classic “Before Sunset” (2004), where characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reunite in Paris after a one-night stand nine years earlier.
Best of all is Albert Lamorisse’s “The Red Balloon” (1956), which made me want to be a balloon and float high above the fabled city’s roofs, towers and domes.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).
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