Longing for a bit of Parisian romance but can't be bothered to leave your sofa? From Last Tango in Paris through Moulin Rouge! to Amélie, let these great films transport you to the city of love.
With language barriers, crowds and confusion, travelling is not always as fun as it looks in the movies. But you can enjoy foreign countries from the comfort of your sofa with a cinematic city-break instead, seeing the world as it ought to be, and without having to wait at the passport queue.
Paris is an obvious destination, and not just for its rich heritage: the movies were invented here (courtesy of the brothers Lumiere) and have been returning home ever since, usually showing the old place in a most flattering light.
So set your berets at a jaunty angle and let's begin...
2 Days in Paris. Image via drakenfilm
To discover Paris properly is the project of a lifetime, but if you can’t spare that long you’ll have to take a few shortcuts. With the right guide, it’s possible to get at least some sense of the city in a short space of time.
If possible, get Julie Delpy to show you around: had she decided against a career as an acclaimed actress-and-director, she could have had a bright future working in tourism—look at how well she shepherds Ethan Hawke around the city in Before Sunset, showing him not just the sights but a taste of the bittersweet romanticism at which the city so excels too. (She repeated the trick in 2 Days in Paris, which is similar but far ruder about The Da Vinci Code and thus better).
You might find, however, that you want to stay a bit longer: Paris has a way of seducing its visitors, especially those of an artistic temperament, as Owen Wilson discovered in Midnight in Paris. He didn’t just look to Paris as a place to nurture his own creative ambitions but as a veritable cradle of genius—home to Hemingway, to Dali and James Joyce, all of whom he got to meet, a luxury sadly no longer offered by most tour operators.
Yes, Paris has sheltered many ex-pat artistes over the years—Samuel Becket, Picasso and Josephine Baker amongst them. Best of all there’s the painter Jerry Mulligan, as seen in that gritty street-level documentary An American in Paris. Mulligan might not be as well known as F Scott Fitzgerald or Luis Bunuel but they never spontaneously burst into elaborate song and dance routines. Starving in a garret never looked like so much fun...
As with any other metropolis, Paris has its share of dangers. It's very important to take care as you make your way around, especially if one is of a grumpy disposition: there is every risk of encountering one of the free-spirited gamines that infest the city. Be warned they won’t relinquish their grip upon you until they have thorough affirmed your life.
Pity the poor intellectuals who were ensnared by the infamous Amelie; sympathise with the curmudgeons who encountered Zazie (of Zazie Dans Le Metro fame). There they were, moping about in their black polo-necks, brooding upon existentialism when a bright young thing came along and dragged them on a whirlwind tour of the city’s hidden wonders. The French government has promised to crack down on these doe-eyed menaces but the danger of enforced cheerfulness still remains.
Zazie Dans Le Metro. Image via entucine
A better way to see the city is by car, perhaps a stretch limo. Holy Motors, for instance, provides a service shuttling you around Paris at a most reasonable price—all you have to do is dress up and perform a series of vignettes of varying weirdness.
If that doesn’t tickle your fancy then there’s always the more traditional tourist trail. Don’t forget to visit the Louvre!
(From Bande à part)
Paris By Night
But a city doesn’t become a city until night: that’s when they come alive and Paris—a city famous for its nightlife—is no exception.
You might want to start by eating out at one of the many world-class restaurants. Famed food critic Anton Ego recommends Gusteau's, as seen in Ratatouille, even if their food hygiene standards are lax by Anglo-Saxon standards: there are those who question whether a rat should ever be allowed in a kitchen, even if he’s really good at cooking.
Suitably sated, you may fancy moving on to a club. How about the fabled Moulin Rouge? This has recently had a redesign, turning it from a sordid dive patronised by absinth-addled artists and slumming aristocrats into a sordid dive patronised by absinth-addled artists and slumming aristocrats which plays 1980s hits.
Alternatively, how about Le Paravent Chinois? This is the home to French Cancan. Sure, it’s faintly down at heel and there are criminals mingling with the dancing girls but there’s an exuberance and excitement here, a joi de vivre you’ll struggle to find elsewhere.
Ah, Paris—the most romantic city on earth, where broken hearts are repaired and where new love blooms upon every corner! How many visitors arrive each year, hoping to experience even a little of this magic for themselves?
Certainly there is passion to be had here, found everywhere from Cafés (Casablanca) to dirty old barges (L’atalante), at the most humble levels of society (7th Heaven) to the most elevated (Trouble in Paradise).
Last Tango in Paris. Image via thecinemaholic
Cynics may pour cold water on such notions, and—even worse—pooh-pooh the idea such aching tenderness is even possible in the real world. And who knows? They might be right. Even so, such things are still more credible than Last Tango in Paris, in which a young woman undertakes a no-strings-attached fling with a flabby middle-aged man she knows nothing about.
You might see them in a night club or casino, sharp-suited and looking like Jean Gabin or Alain Delon, more stylish and glamorous even than the floor show. You know they’re gangsters, you know they’re up to no good but—damn: who wouldn’t want to hang out someone so super-cool?
It's actually surprisingly safe to associate with French gangsters since they seem to spend more of their time scoffing pâté or gazing moodily into the mid-distance than committing any actual crime: their aversion to the cops seems to be because les flics dress so badly.
Consider Max (Touchez pas au grisbi). Oh, he’s a dab hand with a submachine gun but that is but a distraction from his real calling as a bon-vivant—his criminal empire comes a distant second to making sure he’s got the right pyjamas. The debonaire Monsieur Bob (Bob le Flambeur) is much the same, but with added ennui: a high-rolling gambler he may be, but one suspects he’d prefer to lose his stake than be thought improperly dressed.
Touchez Pas au Grisbi. Image via mubi
Tempting though it is to break bread with these guys, you are advised to keep them at arm's length because they have been known to get into trouble. But be reassured; even if they meet unfortunate ends (Michel in A bout de souffle; Silian in Les Doulos), they were the best-looking corpses in the morgue.
The above offers only the briefest guide to this most majestic city. It never strays beyond the centre, meaning the peripheries are ignored, as they so often are: a more comprehensive gazetteer would include La Haine or Un Prophet, and acknowledge a more diverse Paris than casual tourists often see.
Most of all it would find a way to crow-bar Les Enfants du Paradis into the conversation. The places where it’s set are gone now—it takes place in the early 19th century, before the city as we know it today took shape—so it’s not a film for sightseers. But no movie better captures the feel of Paris—the thrilling romanticism; the brimming ebullience (and the corresponding melancholy); the sheer panoply of the place. All life, as they say, is here.
Les enfants du paradis. Image via pariscinemaregion
For all its special charms, the real Paris is not so very different to everywhere else—its citizens (very properly) prioritise decent public transport and amenity over indulging fantasies of an imagined past. And good luck to any struggling young artist trying to find an affordable garret in Montmartre these days.
But don’t worry about such things. As long as there are movies to show us how things ought to be ...we’ll always have Paris.
Read our Ultimate Paris Weekend Guide next.
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