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the sort of nostalgia that attracts visitors to the cafés of the Left Bank, where most of the bookshops have now been replaced by designer boutiques, but it never strays far from the affluent tourist beat to make its point: it’s all Place Vendôme, the Tuileries, Shakespeare & Company.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.