PARIS IN THE MOVIES: ILLUSION VS REALITY

frances-ha-9

Frances Ha.

Noah Baumbach’s delightful Frances Ha is set mostly in America, but there’s an interlude in Paris which offers a poignant contrast to the way the French capital is usually depicted in American movies. Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, fails dismally to connect with any of her contacts and ends up walking alone, eating alone, going to the cinema alone, her lack of funds and local knowledge made even sadder by their being shot in black and white.

It took me back to my own early Paris trips, when I was so lacking in savoir faire I would check into the first hotel I saw after stumbling exhausted out of the Gare du Nord (this was before Eurostar, when the cheapest way to get there from London was via overnight ferry) and was so short of money I lived off croissants and made my own entertainment, which basically meant wandering around on my own all day.*

Americans adore Paris, even though some of them might distrust the cheese-eating French and their bolshy attitude to cultural protectionism. A more typical American’s eye-view of Paris can be seen in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, where it’s a playground for wealthy visitors – five-star hotels and swanky brasseries, lent an intellectual sheen by the ghosts of Hemingway, Scott and Zelda, Gertrude Stein, and shot through filters of nostalgic glow.

To a degree, Allen’s film is a commentary on precisely the sort of nostalgia that attracts visitors to the cafés of the Left Bank, where most of the bookshops have now been replaced by designer boutiques, but it never strays far from the affluent tourist beat to make its point: it’s all Place Vendôme, the Tuileries, Shakespeare & Company. This is Paris as a cultural theme park – a brand many times more seductive and intoxicating than the likes of EuroDisney.

Allen flatters his audiences with references to writers and artists they will have heard of, maybe quotes some of their best-known bons mots, but doesn’t bother to engage with the ideas that made them famous in the first place. Nor does he remind us that the likes of, for example, Hemingway, spent most of their time in Paris living in abject poverty, or that the bars and restaurants visited by Owen Wilson have now been priced beyond the reach of artists who don’t have private incomes, most of whom have now been obliged to move out of Paris’s most glamorous quartiers into the cheaper banlieues or provinces.

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Midnight in Paris.

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Femme Fatale.

Brian de Palma, when he filmed Femme Fatale, was slightly more adventurous with his locations and orchestrated one of his elaborate slo-mo set-pieces in ethnically mixed but still trendy Ménilmontant, while Roman Polanski, in Frantic, disorientated his visiting Yank (Harrison Ford) by showing him the Statue of Liberty replica by the Pont de Grenelle, incidentally reminding us the original sculpture was a gift from France to America in the first place.

But Hollywood’s Paris invariably has at least one foot stuck in the past, whether it’s the Belle Époque of Gigi, when it was acceptable for 15-year-old girls to be groomed as courtesans and leered at by the likes of Maurice Chevalier in the Bois de Boulogne, or An American in Paris, where the MGM soundstage and a crack team of set designers conjure up the lost worlds of Lautrec, Dufy, Renoir et al more convincingly than could ever have been managed on location. This is a Paris of the mind, and probably instrumental in convincing Woody Allen’s generation to head there in the first place.

Another musical, Funny Face, prefers to augment its studio recreations with location shooting, and has an affectionate chuckle at the expense of Americans abroad in the glorious Bonjour, Paris! number, where Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson all pretend to be too cool to visit landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel Tower – but then sneak off to visit them anyway.

An American in Paris.

An American in Paris.

Funny Face.

Funny Face.

Charade.

Charade.

By 1957, Left Bank intellectualism, as personified by Jean-Paul Sartre, was already sufficiently established as a tourist attraction for Funny Face to spoof it, very prettily, with Audrey Hepburn’s Basal Metabolism dance – though I prefer the British send-up in Galton and Simpson’s The Rebel, in which commuter-turned-painter Tony Hancock encounters Nanette Newman and Jean Marsh togged up as black-garbed beatniks in blue lipstick.

As the symbol of skinny European chic, Hepburn toplined several other Hollywood Paris-fests, including Charade, where vital plot developments take place in the Carré Marigny stamp market, just off the Champs Elysées, and in the Palais-Royal – shot, of course, prior to the installation of Daniel Buren’s controversial columns.

As recently as 2011, Martin Scorsese – whose early films exemplified dirty realist New York – revived the soundstage approach in Hugo, applying the nostalgic filter treatment to Montparnasse railway station (which in 1969 was torn down and replaced by the much reviled Tour Montparnasse) even directly referencing the famous derailment of 1895.

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Hugo.

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Derailment at Montparnasse (1895).

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Before Sunset.

But the rose-tinting of Paris isn’t confined to big budget studio movies. American indies can also fall under the city’s romantic spell, as does Richard Linklater’s talky but exquisite Before Sunset, where will-they-won’t-they lovers Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke meet in Shakespeare and Company (clearly an essential pit stop in any thinking American’s itinerary) and bend each other’s ears all around the Left Bank – interrupted only by a topographically unfeasible detour to the fashionable Le Pure Café in the 11th arrondissement, on the other side of town. The 11th, incidentally, has taken over from the tourist-thronged 6th arrondissement as the place to eat, crammed with the sort of restaurants and brasseries that the slightly more intrepid breed of tourist can convince themselves are authentic neighbourhood eateries, as opposed to touristy.

In rom-coms like Le Divorce, Forget Paris and French Kiss, the young American heroines are wooed by Paris’s qualities as a match-maker or titillated by what they see as the uninhibited French attitude to love and sex. The Aristocats, Ratatouille and Une vie de chat show that an animated Paris populated by talking animals can be even more romantic than the live action version (and you don’t have to put up with Meg Ryan having an obnoxious lactose intolerant episode after eating lots of cheese, which happens in French Kiss), while the absurdly warm-hued Montmartre of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (aka Amélie), stuffed to the gills with classic Parisian types who might have stepped straight out of the 1930s films of René Clair or Marcel Carné, proves the nostalgia isn’t limited to American films and can also be home-grown.

Ratatouille.

Ratatouille.

Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain.

Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain.

Today’s Parisian bourgeoisie, one imagines, almost certainly prefers the Woody Allen vision of their city as a posh theme park for rich folk, as opposed to being reminded of the great unwashed on the other side of the Périphérique by films like Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, Pierre Morel’s District 13 and Michael Haneke’s Caché, where Left Bank intellectuals just like them are rudely confronted by the legacy of France’s colonial past.

Even Greta Gerwig fails to see this side of the city in Frances Ha. She still believes in the fantasy Paris of the books and movies – but like most us whose budget doesn’t stretch to Brasserie Lipp, fails to locate it in reality.

La haine.

La haine.

District 13.

District 13.

*Luckily, this is absolutely one of the best ways to get to know Paris: I did all the museums and galleries, Nôtre Dame and Sacre Coeur, Balzac’s house and Napoleon’s tomb, Rodin’s house and Moreau’s museums, the cemeteries (Père Lachaise, Montparnasse, Montmartre, Picpus) and I did them all on foot, since it took me an unconscionably long time to work out how to use the Métro.

I also took a lot of black and white photographs with my second-hand Pentax, some of which can be seen here.

This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in July 2013. It has since been edited and considerably expanded.

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12 thoughts on “PARIS IN THE MOVIES: ILLUSION VS REALITY

  1. All true…. but I would contend that it took a group of Canadians to crystalise what is the average American movie view of Paris in ‘Team America’.

    Stripey jumper check
    Onion Seller check
    etc, etc.

    To save searching here’s a link

    (I’d forgotten about the clever transition using a puppet show within a ‘puppet show’.

      • No I hadn’t, which means I need to find my DVD copy in one of the cupboards.

        Hmm…. this might take a while.

        But between now and then:

        It’s an interesting film if you look beyond the immediate, freed from the limits of a live action film* it pushes things as hard as it can. On a rainy day it’s worth comparing with it side by side with ‘Thunderbirds are GO!’ [1966] which does the exact opposite, I wants to be a ‘real’ film with ‘real’ actors and everything** is played straight.

        (*esp. that scene! and that other scene)

        (**Apart from a very strange Cliff and The Shad’s cameo, when it does get a bit odd very strange.)

        • I don’t think I’ve seen any of the Thunderbirds movies. There’s another one coming up, apparently. I used to buy Lady Penelope magazine; I remember getting some free X-Ray specs with it once.

          • It would have come out in the days of the single screen and being ‘sold’ as a film for kids the local Odeon manager might have had doubts about it filling seats over a whole week. It may have just been shown once as a Saturday morning Childrens feature?

            It is not as twee as the TV series became, if memory doesn’t play me false, it begins as a straight 60’s spy drama and morphs into an Irwin Alllen-esque ‘peril in the sky’ thriller, years before the ‘Airport’ franchise.

            Lady P gets a decent amount of story before the ‘boys and their toys’ get called in.

            [I came across a very much used Lady Penelope Annual a few months ago, sadly I could not read much of it for fear of the whole thing flying apart at the spine.]

  2. It’s curious how cities – and even entire countries, sometimes – can become so overlayed with the projected ideas of them that it can be hard for those who don’t actually live in those places to tell reality from the fantasy version. Although I use the word reality probably incorrectly here, because even those of us who live in cities subject to this mythification in film and literature all see our cities differently. I live in Edinburgh, for me ranking alongside Paris as one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, and of course both Scotland in general and Edinburgh in particular are subject to huge misconceptions, especially from American visitors who think we all live in castles, wear kilts and play bagpipes several times a day. I’ve even had some US tourists who were genuinely surprised how “advanced” we were and that we had electricity, internet and that she could use her credit card. And no, sadly, that’s not a joke nor an isolated case of “dumb tourist”. I’ve long since given up trying to explain to them how much of the modern Western world was created or inspired by Scots because they have the Shortbread tin tartan image of the place in their head and you can’t dislodge it (and to be fair it does create a great image abroad for enticing tourists to come here and spend!).

    But even for me living here, I see the whole city, I explore it taking thousands of photographs of all sorts of places from demolished old breweries to the Castle at sunset, but even for me the city is always half fantasy. Impossible for me to be reviewing a new book based on the work of Robert Louis Stevenson or Conan Doyle and not think about how my desk is only a few moments from where both went to university, or walk past a spot where Knox spouted fire and brimstone or Hume entertained his friends with good wine and philosophical debate, all of the literary and historical aspects of the city still very alive in the here and now and sitting so strangely in my mind with the depressing 1960s “ovespill” housing estates dotted around the far edges of town where the the tourists never venture. Weirdly the city of my birth,

    Glasgow, has the opposite – despite being a huge cultural hub, home to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, BBC Scotland, the national orchestra and operas and huge museums which regularly features in the top ten visitor attractions for the entire UK, and despite spending decades reinventing itself after the demise of the heavy industries it was famous for, it still retains a popular image as a rough place, full of huge, depressed housing estates full of roaming gangs and violence and drug and drink taking. Edinburgh somehow escapes this, despite having similar estates on the periphery with the same social problems. The centre of Glasgow contains some glorious old architecture and yet again all many think of are the 60s concrete blocks on the edge of town, and no matter what you show them going round the annual Doors Open Day to explore the architecture they still retain this vision hammered into them, while Edinburgh seems to be portrayed as if it has no elements like that (with a few exceptions like Irvine Welsh and Trainspotting or some parts of ian Rankin’s novels).

    It’s all very odd the way people build up pictures that can be so divorced from the reality, or in the case of cities like Paris and Edinburgh, sure, there are parts of those idealised versions which are almost true sometimes (you can’t see sunset over the Castle and not be lost in the romantic, idealised version, or walk down a glowing Parisian boulevard at night and not be swept away with it all), and the fact that even those of us living in places with such literary or filmic mythologies like Edinburgh, Paris, New York, London, Tokyo etc, also feel those dream-like aspects of the city too. Perhaps all cities only exist half in reality, the other half is what we conjure in our minds as we perceive the city, all the books we read, the films we saw, the poetry we absorbed, the music, then our own personal history (there’s the pub I met that special person, here’s the building where my parents proudly watched me graduate uni), all building up to the whole for us. Actually I don’t think I’d have it any other way, some places are too wonderful not to be partly built purely of dreams.

  3. What’s the opposite of nostalgia? The retro-fitted future Paris of black-and-white animation RENAISSANCE is beautifully realised.

    • The graphics in Renaissance were interesting. This is my review from the Billson Film Database:

      “Daniel Craig provides the voice of the leading character in the English language version of this French-made sci-fi animation. He’s a cop on the trail of a kidnapped lady scientist who works for a powerful L’Oréal-type health-and-beauty corporation, but the plot, which seems cobbled together from every dystopian movie of the past 30 years, takes second place to the extraordinary look of the film: live actors have been rotoscoped into contrasty black and white, with resulting noir imagery even more extreme than that of Sin City. This vision of Paris in the year 2054 is the most intriguing futuristic view of the city since Godard’s Alphaville; I often found myself losing patience with the routine car chases and shoot-outs, and itching to freeze the action so I could examine just how the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame have been integrated into a labyrinth of shopping centres and covered motorways.”

  4. I must have used up all my romanticism on a London that no longer exists because I’ve never had any love for Paris. I seem to always catch it at a bad moment too. Tthough I’ve enjoyed visiting, I’m always glad to leave. I much prefer Bruxelles — the beer is so much better.

  5. Pingback: Anne Billson: An Admiration + a few links to articles I particularly enjoyed | peeboi

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