I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago, to hear about a new skincare launch by Chanel and to do some research for a forthcoming piece about the new biopic Coco Avant Chanel.
As we traced the great couturiere’s dainty footsteps across the quartier where she lived and worked, I was struck by just how many great films I’ve loved have been set and filmed there. And how, any time I need a fix of my favourite city, I have any number of wonderful movies available to me for an instant Parisian pick-me-up.
Its buildings, squares and streets have added atmosphere and authenticity to historical epics and period dramas (think Dangerous Liaisons or A Very Long Engagement) and so much of the city is unspoiled that actual locations – the scene of the attempted assassination of General De Gaulle, at the corner of the rue de Rennes and the boulevard du Montparnasse, as featured in The Day of the Jackal, for example – can be used in their cinematic recreations.
You don’t need to be a director to be able to visualise clearly what the scene must have been like in the vast place de la Concorde when Madame La Guillotine was entertaining the crowds, or to imagine the misery of life in the Conciergerie prison where Marie-Antoinette and hundreds of others were held before they lost their heads: they have been preserved for posterity.
Similarly, legendary Parisian institutions – such as Maxim’s restaurant (as featured in the sumptuous Art Nouveau extravaganza Gigi as well as the tres chic sixties caper comedy How To Steal a Million), the Moulin Rouge, and the Chartier brasserie, where Jodie Foster lunched in A Very Long Engagement – have barely changed in decades, and so lend themselves beautifully to films set in any period since they opened. The Ritz will undoubtedly play its part in Coco Avant Chanel, as it was here that she enjoyed trysts with her lovers before nipping across the rue Cambon to her boutique.
The world-famous metro system and its iconic, labyrinthine stations have played host to nail-biting chases in such great (and very dissimilar) movies as Diva and Charade, and the Eiffel Tower has played a pivotal part in everything from Ealing comedy (The Lavender Hill Mob) to James Bond thriller (A View to a Kill). A moonlit Bateau Mouche cruise on the Seine is where Cary Grant and a Givenchy-clad Audrey Hepburn fall in love in one of the most evocative of all Paris films, the super-sexy comedy-thriller Charade.
The many facets of the city’s personality are reflected in the range of films that have been set there. The threatening side of Paris – especially to hapless American tourists – was exploited to great effect in the Roman Polanski thriller Frantic, in which Harrison Ford’s wife disappears without a trace from their hotel bedroom.
The often deserted platforms and empty corridors of the metro evoke the eery, unsettling side of a city with its fair share of nutters. Just ask Steve Buscemi who, in the recent portmanteau movie Paris Je T’aime, has an unpleasant (and not entirely unusual) experience while waiting for a train in the Tuileries station. Equally, the sordid and tacky parts of Paris have been shown in a diverse range of films including Amelie, which views the sex shops around the Faubourg St-Denis with characteristic bemusement.
Few films have evoked the quixotic, magical side of Paris as well as Amelie, which portrayed the city as a big adventure playground for romantics and underlined the fact that it’s the sum of its many parts, of which the pretty, whimsical, self-contained Montmartre area is just one.
Meanwhile, such Parisian passions as American jazz have produced some superior jazz movies, including Paris Blues and Round Midnight. And the city’s status as the capital of style has inspired a string of fashion films, among them Pret-a-Porter, Robert Altman’s chronicle of the catwalk shows, and the gloriously chic Funny Face.
Indeed, Funny Face is probably the greatest of all the cinematic billet doux from Hollywood to Paris. A gorgeous, colourful, joie-de-vivre-exuding movie, it highlights how one person’s Paris can be entirely different from another’s – because of all these separate, but overlapping, facets to the city’s character. While Fred Astaire’s urbane photographer character is drawn to the grandeur of the Champs-Elysees, the fashion editor played by Kay Thompson wants to hit the shops around the rue St-Honore, and our bookish, beatnik heroine, Audrey Hepburn, can’t wait “to philosophise with all the guys in Montmartre – and Montparnasse”, and explore cafe culture. .
Paris Je T’aime cleverly used this all-things-to-all-people idea to highly original effect, by gathering together 18 different stories, each set in a different part of the city. It’s the ultimate Paris film locations-wise, but, of course, the love affair between Paris and the movies isn’t dependent on complete authenticity. The most famous romantic movie of all time, Casablanca, was partly set in Paris and although filmed entirely in California, it captured the city’s romantic personality by suggesting that Paris was more than a place; it is a state of mind.
After all, as Bogey says to Ingrid Bergman as they separate forever: “We’ll always have Paris.”