From Mr Alain Delon to Mr Marlon Brando via Mr Cary Grant – meet the movie icons who have illuminated Paris
Ms Audrey Hepburn and Mr Cary Grant, Charade, Paris, 1963. Photograph by Gamma Rapho
We’ll always have Paris,” says Rick in the final scene of Casablanca. It’s one of the great lines because, although he may be saying it to get Ilsa on that plane, it’s true for all of us. Once you’ve got Paris, once Paris has got you, you never give it up.
And Paris isn’t only the setting for countless great films, it’s a city whose whole being is mediated through the light of film unlike any other. You might say something similar of LA or New York, maybe, but who walks around London feeling that it’s through film that it’s most enhanced and multiplied? Only the most parochial cineaste, that's who.
Nowhere is comparably romantic, sexy, evocative, as a setting. To choose eight films to represent it is near impossible. There’s no room for Boudu Saved From Drowning, Mr Jean Renoir’s wonderful tramp film of 1932. Les Enfants Du Paradis with Ms Arletty. Mr Gene Kelly in An American In Paris. The ominous masterpieces of Mr Michael Haneke: Caché and Amour. Pickpocket. Belle De Jour. Les Amants De Pont-Neuf. Three Colours: Blue. Frantic. The Aristocats.
Nor those films with scene-stealer glancing references – from Ms Greta Gerwig’s memorably hopeless two-day stay in Frances Ha to Ms Grace Jones’ Eiffel Tower escape as assassin May Day in an otherwise dodgy Bond, A View To A Kill.
The choices below are all arguable then – but they’re from an embarrassment of riches.
Mr Cary Grant and Ms Audrey Hepburn, Charade, 1963. Photograph by Collection Christophel/Photoshot
“The best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made,” Charade, directed by Mr Stanley Donen, is a Technicolor delight. A screwball thriller. You need at least a little Ms Audrey Hepburn in your Paris. Here, 33 and perfect, she finds herself, after her husband’s death, in Paris, stuck in a cheap hotel, assailed by an incomprehensible melee of agents competing for his money, stolen in the war. Can her new friend, Mr Cary Grant (59 by then, but no less irresistible) be trusted? Or is he one of them? Standing by the Seine, she wonders if he would swing down on a rope to save someone he loves, as the Hunchback of Notre Dame had done. Turning around, he sees the cathedral and says with apparently sincere surprise: “What? Who put that there?” Later, mid-gun battle, she just says: “Oh, I don’t know who anybody is, any more”. Only Ms Hepburn could get away with that. When she finally learns the truth, Mr Grant’s sudden parodic impression of her shocked face is one of his greatest moments. A joyful Parisian entertainment, Hollywood coming to town.
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Le Samouraï, 1967
Mr Alain Delon, Le Samouraï, 1967. Photograph by Collection Christophel/Photoshot
Other noir thrillers, notably Mr Jules Dassin's heist movie Rififi (1955), might claim to be more deeply embedded in Paris’ mean streets, but Le Samouraï, from veteran director and Resistance hero Mr Jean-Pierre Melville, has good claim to be simply the coolest, most stylish crime film ever made. Mr Alain Delon, then just turned 30, the most beautiful man, plays Jef Costello, living in the most sparely furnished apartment ever, with just a songbird for company. Wearing classic suits, he’s a hitman for hire, but living by his own code. When his employers betray his contract, on an overpass over the Orléans railway, they make a big mistake. After a chase through the Métro, Jef returns to the nightclub where he carried out the hit – and this time he checks his hat and doesn’t bother to take the ticket, knowing he won’t be coming back. As an image of male elegance and valour to no end, Le Samouraï is unrivalled and has been hugely influential. See this and you’ll know where Drive came from. Fancy a little of Jef’s Parisian poise? Good luck.
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Breathless (A Bout De Souffle), 1960
Mr Jean-Paul Belmondo and Ms Jean Seberg, Breathless, 1960. Photograph by Eyevine
Mr Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature was put together à l’improviste, with the help of Messrs François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. He wrote the script as he went along, filmed in the streets of Paris without permission with a handheld camera in available light – and had to dub the sound after. But in the edit, using revolutionary jump cuts, Breathless became a film like none before, the essential celebration of young revolt. It was the breakthough role for former amateur boxer, Mr Jean-Paul Belmondo, then in his mid-twenties, as charismatic crim-on-the-run Michel, who hooks up with Patricia, played by the crop-headed Ms Jean Seberg, the very definition of gamine. Yet to turn 21, Ms Seberg was already the veteran of Saint Joan, Bonjour Tristesse and a Mr Peter Sellers comedy; her $15,000 fee was a sixth of the film’s whole budget. The whole extremity of the youth culture to come is here. “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief,” says Patricia. Michel takes nothing.
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Last Tango In Paris, 1972
Mr Marlon Brando and Ms Maria Schneider, Last Tango in Paris, 1972. Photograph by Getty Images
The New Yorker film critic Ms Pauline Kael really went to town on Last Tango. “This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made,” she pronounced. “[Mr Bernardo] Bertolucci and [Mr Marlon] Brando have altered the face of an art form.” More than 40 years on, with explicit sex a click away, it’s still a shocker – the ultimate embodiment of a tough-guy, dominant male sexual culture long gone. Mr Bertolucci based the story, three days of increasingly aggressive sexual encounters in an empty Parisian flat, on his own fantasies of sex with a nameless stranger – and he got out of both Mr Brando and 20-year-old Ms Maria Schneider performances they themselves found hard to accept afterwards. Schneider said she felt “a little raped” by both actor and director and claimed it had ruined her life: Mr Brando didn’t talk to Mr Bertolucci for 15 years. Never mind the butter, just don’t ask about the pig. It may be mainly an interior piece, like being inside a Mr Francis Bacon painting – but where else other than Paris could this ever have been made and set?
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Before Sunset, 2004
Mr Ethan Hawke and Ms Julie Delpy, Before Sunset, 2004. Photograph by Mondadori Portfolio
Here’s the sweetest romance from our best real-time director, Mr Richard Linklater. It picks up the story of Jesse (Mr Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Ms Julie Delpy) nine years after the night they met in Vienna in 1995’s Before Sunrise. It turns out they didn’t find each other again six months later, as planned, and had no means of contact. Now Jesse has written a bestseller based on their encounter – and at a reading at Shakespeare And Company bookstore, Céline is in the audience. He needs to catch a plane in an hour, they’re both in other relationships, but they walk through Paris together talking the Marais, the gardens, the river, eventually arriving at Céline’s apartment. “You’re gonna miss that plane,” she warns. “I know,” he says. Mr Hawke and Ms Delpy shared the writing credit – and the film has a naturalness hardly seen before. If you don’t treasure this, you have no heart: the city as a dream lost and found.
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Midnight In Paris, 2011
From left: Mr Michael Sheen, Ms Lea Seydoux, Ms Rachel McAdams and Mr Owen Wilson, Midnight In Paris, 2011. Photograph by Gravier Productions/Kobal Collection
Gil Pender (Mr Owen Wilson) is a successful screenwriter, but wants to be a novelist and he comes to Paris with his demanding fiancee Inez (Ms Rachel MacAdams) and her parents, looking for inspiration. One night, drunk, he finds himself transported back to 1920s Paris, the Golden Age, meeting all the big cheeses: Mr F Scott and Ms Zelda Fitzgerald, Mr Cole Porter, Mr Ernest Hemingway and Ms Gertrude Stein, Mr Salvador Dalí, Mr Luis Buñuel – plus a woman he falls for in this other time, Adriana (Ms Marion Cotillard). Another night, he and Adriana find themselves back in what she sees to be the Golden Age, the 1890s (Maxim’s, the Moulin Rouge) – and there he leaves her. In the present day, though, he meets antiquarian Gabrielle (Ms Léa Seydoux) and they walk though Paris in the rain... To be sure, Midnight In Paris is touristic, the Paris that tourists dream of, but that’s the point – and it hits that fantasy for six.
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Things To Come (L’Avenir), 2016
Ms Isabelle Huppert and Mr Roman Kolinka, L'Avinir, 2016. Photogrpah © L Bergery
The previous film by Ms Mia Hansen-Løve, Eden (2014), was about a 20-something Parisian house DJ, based on her brother. L’Avenir, though, is about a still slender, still chic Parisian philosophy professor of another generation. Perhaps in her late fifties, Nathalie, played superbly by Ms Isabelle Huppert, finds her life beginning to fall apart when her equally academic husband leaves her and their book-lined apartment, her mother dies, her textbooks are dropped, and her radical young friends leave her behind. What can ideas do for her now? Paris, even more than the rest of France, has always lived by ideas – and the life of intellectuals has never been better rendered on film. Ms Hansen-Løve, herself the daughter of two philosophy professors, is still only 35: things to come, for sure.
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