Paris in the movies isn’t as magical as Paris in real life, but it can come close when seen through the lens of a gifted filmmaker. The City of Lights has been inspiring such artists for more than a century, from French New Wave auteurs to Americans hoping to put their cinematic stamp on the one-of-a-kind city, with Paris itself often becoming a kind of supporting character in the myriad stories that take place there. While you’re waiting to plan your next trip to the capital of France, watch these eight movies that will make you feel like you’ve already been there.
“An American in Paris”
If you don't think you like musicals, “An American in Paris” may change your mind. Vincente Minnelli's 1951 comedy is an all-timer of the genre, with stars Gene Kelly and a debuting Leslie Caron singing and dancing along to a timeless score composed by George Gershwin; the climax, a dialogue-free 17-minute dance sequence that was filmed on 44 different sets and cost nearly $500,000 to produce, is essential viewing in and of itself.
Kelly (who also did the choreography) stars as an expat painter, while Carron plays the girlfriend of a French singer; suffice to say that sparks fly between the two. The film, which won Best Picture alongside five other Academy Awards, is part of the Library of Congress' National Film Registry and was ranked ninth on the American Film Institute's list of the Greatest Movie Musicals.
Whether or not you considered it “spectacular spectacular” at the time, there’s no doubt that “Moulin Rouge!” remains a favorite among cinephiles and Francophiles alike nearly 20 years later. Baz Luhrmann's jukebox musical was even more lavish than his “Romeo + Juliet,” thanks in part to the grandiose performances of Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor as star-crossed lovers at the famed Parisian cabaret; as successful at the box office (where it made more than $179 million) as it was at year-end awards, the film presents a romantic, heightened-reality vision of the City of Lights.
If you’ve never watched the “Before” trilogy, it’s time to clear an entire Saturday and experience one of the most unique cinematic accomplishments of the last 25 years. Richard Linklater’s trio of romantic dramas, each of which stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as lovers who first meet one fateful day in Vienna, take place largely in real time and have somehow only improved with age. The second installment, 2004’s “Before Sunset,” was shot on location in Paris and finds Jesse and Céline meeting for the first time in nine years, features the best moment of the entire series (which shan’t be spoiled here).
“Before Sunrise” certainly didn’t need a sequel, and anyone skeptical of the story picking up nearly a decade later would have been justified in their doubt, and yet the now decades-long relationship between Jesse and Céline is all the richer for the way it’s been explored in the latter two entries. Hawke and Delpy co-wrote the winsome script with Linklater, and for their efforts all three received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
“The 400 Blows”
You can’t talk about Paris onscreen without taking a deep dive into the French New Wave, quite possibly the most influential cinematic movement of all time. There’s no better place to start than “The 400 Blows,” François Truffaut’s 1959 directorial debut. The first in a cycle of four films about Antoine Doinel, a wayward Parisian youth alienated from both his parents and teachers, it won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival and received an Oscar nomination for what was then called Best Writing.
Antoine’s story is at once site-specific and universal, as anyone who experienced a troubled adolescence can attest. More than four million people saw “The 400 Blows” in France during its original theatrical run, and its reputation has only grown in the decades since.
No French-language film has ever made more money in the United States than “Amélie,” whose success was both surprising and inevitable: It’s an utter crowd-pleaser, with Audrey Tautou's performance in the title role charming audiences the world over. It’s a movie about both the simple pleasures in life — like cracking crème brûlée with a teaspoon or skipping stones at St. Martin’s Canal — and the importance of going through life with a rich imagination and good heart.
Amélie Poulain, a waitress with a heart of gold and a mischievous streak, tasks herself with spreading joy to others while simultaneously learning what matters most to her. Paris itself has rarely looked as delightful as it does here, with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet shining a spotlight on the unique qualities that make the city so beloved.
“Cléo from 5 to 7”
Before Amélie, there was Cléo. Agnès Varda was rightfully considered the Godmother of the French New Wave, and her defining work remains “Cléo from 5 to 7” more than half a century after it was first released. Taking place in real time as the title character (an effervescent Corinne Marchand) awaits the results of a cancer test, it’s an existential stroll through both the streets of Paris and the mind of its introspective heroine.
Varda was an eminently playful filmmaker, and yet she was always serious. “Cléo” is a quick jaunt of a film with heady issues on its mind, making it emblematic of Varda’s oeuvre as a whole.
“Three Colors: Blue”
Anyone who's yet to be acquainted with the work of Krzysztof Kieślowski is in for a treat. The massively ambitious Polish filmmaker, whose “Dekalog” consists of 10 short films, each based on one of the Ten Commandments, also had a strong connection to France. That's most evident in his “Three Colors” trilogy, as each film explores the virtues (liberty, equality, and brotherhood) represented by the country's tricolor flag.
“Blue” is the first in that series, and arguably the best. Juliette Binoche stars as a woman grieving the loss of her husband and daughter in a car accident, with Kieślowski delving into the concept of liberty as it pertains to his heroine’s emotional state; in attempting to isolate herself in a Paris apartment so as not to deal with other people or her own feelings, she’s reminded of how vitally important both are.
If you only know her from “Twilight,” there’s a good chance you’re unaware that Kristen Stewart has quietly amassed one of the most impressive filmographies of any actor her age. She's worked with some of the world's foremost auteurs after leaving that vampire franchise behind, from Kelly Reichardt (“Certain Women”) to Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria”) and even became the first American actress to win a César Award (France's equivalent of the Oscar) for her work in the latter project.
Stewart continued her collaboration with Assayas on “Personal Shopper,” starring as the title character — a young woman in Paris attempting to contact her deceased twin brother. It’s a strange, ethereal story in which K-Stew exchanges text messages with what may or may not be a ghost. Even at its weirdest, she anchors the story and adds genuine human feeling to its otherworldly goings on.
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