The city of light, camera, action: 12 of the best films set in Paris

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This article is part of a Parisian guide by FT Globetrotter

The history of cinema begins in several places, but all roads lead to Paris. On December 28, 1895, cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière organized their first commercial film screening in the basement of the Grand Café on Boulevard des Capucines. The brothers left the cinema a few years later, but the baton passed that evening. Among the crowd were Léon Gaumont, who would soon found the world’s first film studio, and stage magician Georges Méliès, later director of the legendary A trip to the moon.

Paris and cinema have always gone hand in hand. The city was made to be a movie set, an exquisite mosaic of history and novelty (the Eiffel Tower was only six years old when the Enlightenment arrived at the Grand Café). Only New York could compete with him for charisma. And just like with New York movies, any modern list of the best-capturing movies will run out of space before they run out of titles. So the next trip will have to be where we include The 400 blows and that of Charles Laughton The Hunchback of Notre Dame; The Pier and the Samurai; Cléo from 5 to 7 and yes, Ratatouille. For now, our tour starts here:

The Red Balloon (1956)

Where to watch: available to stream on Amazon prime and, in the United States, The criterion string

Pascal Lamorisse in ‘Le Ballon Rouge’ © PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy

Could we spend 35 more magical minutes in Paris than in the company of the allegory from Albert Lamorisse’s picture book? Beginning with a boy discovering a lost balloon on the steps of Julien-Lacroix passage, what follows is both a gripping adventure for kids and a poignant time capsule of a rainy day, the now half-gone Belleville flea market.

Before Sunset (2004)

Where to watch: Amazon prime, itunes, Youtube and other platforms

Want to see you again here: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet in Paris in 'Before Sunset' by Richard Linklater

Want to see you here: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet in Paris in ‘Before Sunset’ by Richard Linklater © United Archives / Alamy

Paris is for Parisians and for everyone else as well. In the central chapter of Richard Linklater’s beloved Before Trilogy, both groups are represented. Ethan Hawke is the American writer in town for a read at Shakespeare and company, Julie Delpy the local with whom he renews a great passion. Where else will such a loving movie take place?

The Lovers of Pont-Neuf (1991)

Where to watch: Blu ray and DVD

Bridge of Sighs: Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche as cursed lovers in the cult classic 'Les Amants du Pont-Neuf'

Pont des sighs: Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche as cursed lovers in the cult classic ‘Les Amants du Pont-Neuf’ © Album / Alamy

The real Paris is on screen in the great portrait of crazy Love made by the director Leos Carax. (The first meeting between Denis Lavant cursed and Juliette Binoche takes place on Boulevard de Sébastopol.) But the Pont Neuf which mainly provides the stage was a fake, a model built in the south of France in the midst of chaotic production. The wonder of the film – spectacular and singular – is how it always brings you so vividly around the city.

L’Atalante (1934)

Where to watch: Amazon prime, itunes, Youtube and U.S) The criterion string

Canal plus: 'L'Atalante' was filmed on the waterways of Paris

Canal plus: ‘L’Atalante’ was filmed on the waterways of Paris © Ronald Grant Archive

Almost 60 years ago The Lovers on the Bridge, another flamboyant young director told another story of love and trouble on the waterways. Jean Vigo‘s Atalante spends only part of its history in Paris, but still paints it in an unforgettable way as a place of glittering windows, seduction and danger. When the winter of 1933-1934 allows it, Vigo shoots outside the Bassin de la Villette; it is believed that time precipitated his death that year at just 29 years old.

Early childhood (2014)

Where to watch: Amazon prime, itunes, Youtube and other platforms

Karidja Touré in “Girlhood”, a powerful portrait of her childhood in the suburbs of Paris © Kobal / Shutterstock

For generations, Paris at the cinema has kept the suburb out of sight. In 1995, the famous Hate broken the mold. But an even more powerful story was Youth, director Céline Sciamma capturing in three exhilarating chapters the life of a young woman from the neighborhoods of the Cité de la Noue in Bagnolet. The film was a lesson in how, even for a Parisian, a metro ride to Les Halles can feel like a trip to another world.

Alphaville (1965)

Where to watch: Amazon prime, itunes and other platforms

Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine in 'Alphaville', in which Jean-Luc Godard imagined Paris as a techno dystopia

Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine in ‘Alphaville’, in which Jean-Luc Godard imagines Paris as a techno dystopia © Ronald Grant Archive

Yes A piece of soufflé makes Paris the capital of post-war European cinema, Jean-Luc Godard’s dark science fiction Alphaville finds the city taking an even bolder leap of imagination, presented not as itself but as the techno dystopia of the title. Instead of special effects, Godard shot in the modernist brilliance of La Défense. And yet, past Paris is also on the screen. Detective Lemmy Caution was staying at The Scribe hotel – opened on the site of the Grand Café where the Lumière brothers dazzled moviegoers in 1895.

Playtime (1967)

Where to watch: Blu ray, DVD and U.S) The criterion string

Back to Futurism: Jacques Tati in his 1967 masterpiece

Back to Futurism: Jacques Tati in his 1967 masterpiece ‘Playtime’ © Ronald Grant Archive

Godard was not the only titan to steer Paris towards things to come. In 1967, comic strip maestro Jacques Tati made Break – an ambitious, brilliant and financially catastrophic account of a journey towards a futuristic vision of the city, featuring the timeless misadventures of Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati). The vast and complex decorations – nicknamed “Tativille” – saw the conventional city reduced to the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Coeur flash in the reflection of a glass door.

An American in Paris (1951)

Where to watch: Amazon prime, itunes, Youtube and other platforms

Let's dance: Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in 'An American in Paris'

Let’s dance: Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in ‘An American in Paris’ © Photo 12 / Alamy

Another glorious confection of paint and wood, An American in Paris is the city seen through the prism of Hollywood’s golden age. Each set is a wonder. If the jaw still falls in front of the culminating ballet of Gershwin before a series of Paris in the style of the great painters, also keep your amazement for the dance of the edge of the Seine of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron on “Our Love Is Here to Stay”.

Diva (1981)

Where to watch: Blu ray and DVD

Thuy An Luu and Frédéric Andréi in

Thuy An Luu and Frédéric Andréi in “Diva” by Jean-Jacques Beineix © Alamy Stock Photo

“Cinéma du look” was the expression of the 1980s applied to the films of a group of young upstart French filmmakers. But when wasn’t Paris a question of looks? The city is rarely more stylized than in the debut of director Jean-Jacques Beineix, the story of a young postman obsessed with an American soprano, drawn into a whirlwind of gangsters and blackmail. If every big city needs a great metro sequence, Diva provides it in Paris, the hero rolling down his moped in the Concorde metro for a haunting chase scene.

Céline and Julie go boating (1974)

Where to watch: Amazon prime and U.S) The criterion string

Are you sure this is the right address?  Paris navigates like a puzzle in 'Céline and Julie Go Boating'

Are you sure this is the right address? Paris navigates like a puzzle in ‘Céline et Julie Go Boating’ © Capital Pictures

The director Jacques Rivette was precise on the address of the house of divagations in his story of the rabbit hole of the swapped identity: 7 bis rue du Nadir aux Pommes. Typical of the sliding logic at work is that, while the house itself is real, the address is entirely fictitious. It is the perfect emblem of a film which, from the start of the mad chase through Montmartre, treats the city like a puzzle and a playground.

Rififi (1955)

Where to watch: Blu ray, DVD and itunes

Nothing more black: the classic of the Parisian heist of the 50s,

No More Black: 1950 Parisian Heist classic ‘Rififi’ © Christophel / Pathe Consortium Cinema / Alamy

Made just a year before The red balloon, Jules Dassin’s heist film was proof that very different stories take place in the same city. The two films even shared a setting on the picturesque steps of the passage Julien-Lacroix. But Rififi didn’t start with a stray ball but a host of crooks looking for jeweler Mappin & Webb near Place Vendôme. From there, without the budget to shoot on the sound boards, Dassin would do a bristle truth sharp-edged post-war Belleville portrait.

Sacred Motors (2012)

Where to watch: Amazon prime, itunes and other platforms

‘As beautiful, soulful and diverse as the city it is located in’: Leos Carax’s ‘Holy Motors’, which starred Kylie Minogue © Allstar Picture Library / Alamy

Two decades after Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf, Leos Carax returned to Paris to make a film as magnificent, melancholy and varied as the city in which it was set. To start our crazy journey, the movie took us to town on the Western Freeway in a stretch white limo. Upcoming sights included a manic excursion to the Père-Lachaise cemetery, a heart-wrenching rooftop serenade of the famous La Samaritaine department store – and, most exciting of all, a grand accordion march through the cloister of the Saint-Merry Church on rue Saint-Martin. Like Paris itself, the film was both a collection of more than famous landmarks – and nothing but surprises.

What are your favorite films on the set in Paris? Share them in the comments below

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