Paris has long enjoyed a close relationship with cinema. Thanks to the Lumière brothers, France is arguably the birthplace of film, and its capital city is etched into the imaginations of cineastes around the globe.
From the Arc du Triomphe to the Pont Neuf, we all know what Paris ‘feels’ like, if only from seeing its countless depictions on the silver screen. In true Gallic spirit, we’ve compiled our favorite films that capture the inimitable essence of this iconic city. Take it as inspiration for your next city break, or an opportunity to do a spot of traveling without ever leaving the couch…
An American in Paris (1951)
Gene Kelly was never going to be particularly convincing as a troubled painter, but that doesn’t matter at all. The slender plot is just enough motivation to allow Gene to do what Gene does best – dance. His bullish ballet is the perfect counterpoint to co-star Leslie Caron’s more nimble footwork, and their charming relationship is developed almost without words.
The Gershwin-scored musical numbers are a head-spinning technicolor marvel, and director Vincente Minnelli pulls out all the stops in set-piece after spectacular set-piece. A huge influence on the recent La La Land (even the poster apes Kelly and Caron’s moves), AAiP is one of the all-time great musicals, and helped to establish Paris as a city of chic exuberance – even though it was shot entirely on a Californian soundstage!
A world away from AAiP’s rose-tinted dream world, Rififi is a slice of hard-boiled film noir set in the ugly underworld of downtown Paris. Adapted from Auguste le Breton’s novel, the exiled American director Jules Dassin crafts a murky atmosphere of shadows and betrayal that came to represent the flipside of the French capital – the brutal violence simmering beneath the picture-perfect facade.
The first real heist movie, Rififi sees Jean Servais’ aging ex-con assembling a crew of double-crossing felons to mount an impossible assault on a fortified jewel vault. The standout scene is the heist itself, which stretches over 20 minutes in agonizingly tense real time. Even as the sweat drips from his characters’ (and audience’s) brows, Dassin maintains his trademark witty flair – an umbrella is put to ingenious use catching falling masonry while drilling through the vault ceiling.
À bout de souffle (1960)
Perhaps the archetypal French film, À bout de souffle (commonly known as Breathless) broke every rule in the handbook and ushered in the Nouvelle Vague (‘New Wave’) filmmaking movement.
In a career-making performance, Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a small-time crook, joyriding along the banks of the Seine and into the French countryside. Along the way, he picks up the much younger Jean Seberg – and they begin a relationship which as frictive as it is fawning.
But it’s not so much the what as the how. À bout de souffle established Jean-Luc Godard’s signature style and spawned a thousand imitators. Even 60 years later, it’s still a woozy, dreamlike rush, mixing jump cuts with documentary techniques to build a constant, driving rhythm. And while we can never recommend stealing cars or murdering policeman, you’re always encouraged to stroll along the Champs Elysées shouting, “New York Herald Tribune!”
La Haine (1995)
Jumping forward some 35 years, it’s still possible to see the echoes of Godard’s energy and crackling menace in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (‘The Hate’). Taking an unflinching look at a reality diametrically opposed to the squeaky-clean fantasy of An American in Paris, La Haine is mostly set among the Parisian housing projects – ominous tower blocks of concrete and poverty.
Set over 24 hours in the aftermath of a riot, Kassovitz zeroes in on three youths grieving the death of a friend who was killed by police. The standout is a young Vincent Cassel, whose Vinz simmers with a barely suppressed rage that is a terrifying as it is pitiable. Much as Belmondo self-consciously mimics the mannerisms of Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, Cassel idolizes De Niro’s Travis Bickle, rehearsing the infamous “you talkin’ to me?” scene in front of his bedroom mirror.
As you can probably imagine, it doesn’t end well, but Kassovitz treats his characters with humanity and respect, shining a light on a generation conveniently ignored by the French government. For those looking for a depiction of the ‘real’ Paris, it doesn’t get much rougher and tougher than this.
From the ghetto to the bourgeois suburbs, Michael Haneke’s masterpiece is a different breed of horror movie, picking apart the atrocities we suppress in ‘civilized’ life. Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche play a well-to-do Parisian couple whose domestic life is torn apart by the arrival of a stalker’s videotapes – someone is watching them, but who? And more importantly, why?
Those looking for action and adventure will be disappointed, but no other film builds such an uncompromising sense of dread by saying and showing so little. As Auteuil’s Georges tries to trace the origin of the tapes, he is forced to confront the fact that his (and by extension, our) comfortable middle-class life is not ‘deserved’, but merely the product of societal subjugation and inequality. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s never less than gripping, and features one of the most shockingly unpleasant moments ever committed to film (you’ll know it when you see it).