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The City of Lights: The Top Ten Films Set in Paris
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The City of Lights: The Top Ten Films Set in Paris

Picture of Eleanor Cunningham
Updated: 29 September 2016
The Institut français’ Ciné Lumière has established itself as one of London’s top venues for showcasing international cinema. The recent festival Paris Seen By… celebrated the depiction of the French capital in classic and contemporary movies. Here are some of the highlights.

La Haine

Unfolding over 19 hours, La Haine (1995) offers a realist take on the violent, lawless existence of three underprivileged youths (Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Said Taghmaoui) living in the banlieues of Paris.The story originated in the April 1993 shooting death of Makome M’Bowole, a Zairean, in police custody, and was further inspired by the killing of student protester Malik Oussekine. Mathieu Kassovitz’s landmark film, partially based on his own experiences, was attacked by some critics as a caricature of the French underclass and its antagonistic relations with the police. It includes footage from the 1986-96 Paris riots. Kassowitz won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Red Balloon

Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 children’s classic tells the story of a young Parisian boy (played by the director’s son Pascal) who retrieves a balloon tied to a lamppost, only to discover that it has a mind and personality of its own. It follows the boy around the streets and the two form an almost inseparable bond. Shot on location in the Ménilmontant section of Paris, the film depicts a labyrinth of narrow alleys, cobblestones and an overwhelming canvas of grey. The appearance of the balloon’s blazing-red roundness serves as a symbolism of hope. Despite its seemingly effortless naturalism, the piece required a host of complex cinematic tricks during its filming. In a sense, The Red Balloon is one of the all-time greatest examples of pure cinema, winning the 1956 Academy Award for best original screenplay.

C’était un rendez-vous (1976)

A fine example of ‘cinéma-vérité’, C’était un rendez-vous is an illegal and uncompromising documentary, shot in one take. The director, Claude Lelouch, starts his car early one morning and races through Paris with complete disregard for traffic lights, one-way streets, cars, buses and pedestrians, to meet with his wife eight minutes later in one intensely romantic ending. The camera is attached to the front bumper of his Mercedes, reaching speeds of 93 mph. Lelouch was arrested after the first showing of the film, which lead to the footage spending many years underground, only recently being released on DVD (in 1992 Pyramid Film and Video released a low-quality tape priced at £32, making it one of the most expensive videos to obtain).

Before Sunset (2004)

A sequel to Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset reunites a couple, an American (Jesse) and a Parisian (Celine), who have not seen or spoken to each other since their last encounter in Before Sunrise, some nine years prior. Filmed in real time, the couple spend a limited time together before Jesse’s flight home, slowly rekindling their relationship through a picturesque walk in Paris. Both their lives seem unfulfilled and with this chance meeting intimate conversation turns to lingering feelings for one another. Before Sunset was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Amélie (2001)

Originally titled Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amélie Poulain, this highly successful romantic comic fantasy tells the story of Amélie, a young woman with a keen imagination and an active fantasy life. When Princess Diana dies in the summer of 1997, Amelie is reminded that life can be fleeting and she decides it’s time for her to intervene in the lives of those around her, hoping to bring a bit of happiness while struggling with her own isolation. The film has won several awards and has been placed at number 2 in Empire Magazines’ ‘The 100 Best Films of World Cinema’.

Bande à part (1964)

Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) tells the story of two restless young men (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) who persuade a young women (Anna Karina) to help them commit a robbery in her own home. This gangster film features some of Godard’s most memorable set pieces, including the headlong race through the Louvre and the unshakably infamous Madison dance sequence. The films’ style is that of New Wave cinema, with the desire to shoot more current social issues on location, and the intention of experimenting with the film form. Using portable equipment and requiring little to no set up time, the New Wave method of filmmaking presents a style similar to documentary. Film techniques included fragmented storytelling, discontinuous editing and long takes.

French Cancan (1955)

A period fantasy in impressive colour, Jean Renoir’s French Cancan is a musical comedy offering a kind of continuous, bustling choreography. It presents the opening of the world-renowned Moulin Rouge and the story behind the success of the Cancan. Although consciously ahistorical, distorting known facts about the founder of the Moulin Rouge, it is certainly a much more abstract and less politically anchored version of the films Renoir made during the 30s. Unlike its predecessors, French Cancan is deliberately removed from real life, far from the socio-political focus of Renoir’s previous works. Despite this, it might also be argued that its multinational attributes give this film a certain universality.

Charade (1963)

Charade is a stylish comedy-thriller, in which a trio of crooks relentlessly pursue a young American, played by Audrey Hepburn, through Paris in an attempt to recover the fortunes her dead husband stole from them. Very much with a Hitchcock feel, this film is often described as ‘the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made’. Cary Grant and Hepburn have considerable charisma and chemistry, and Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy add to the proceedings in strong supporting roles. Action sequences include a sprawling fight scene that ends on a hotel roof and a riveting climactic showdown. The film’s real climax, though, is the romantic final scene.

Paris, je t’aime (2006)

A unique anthology film created by 20 acclaimed filmmakers from around the world, Paris, je t’aime features 18 short stories, each set in a different part of Paris and each made by a different cast and director. In ‘Faubourg Saint-Denis’, Tom Tykwer directs Natalie Portman as an American actress who is the object of affection for a blind student (Melchior Belson). Christopher Doyle‘s ‘Porte de Choisy’ follows a salesman (Barbet Schroeder) as he tries to pitch beauty aids in Chinatown. Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier are father and daughter in ‘Parc Monceau’ from Alfonso Cuarón. Animator Sylvain Chomet turns his eye to a pair of living, breathing mimes in ‘Tour Eiffel’. Paris, je t’aime ultimately provides an insightful, multi-cultural look at the City of Lights.

Seventh Heaven (1927)

Seventh Heaven is among the most celebrated romances of the late silent era. Janet Gaynor won the first Academy Award for Best Actress with her performance in this film. The story follows the story of Chico (Charles Farrell), a poor sewer worker desperate to be promoted to sweeping the streets of Paris and to find a woman who will be his wife. One day he meets Diane (Gaynor) being chased by the police for a petty crime and helps her hide, and soon the two fall in love. When Chico is called to fight in World War I, Diane lives for the day he returns. As Chico is severely injured in battle yet lives, Diane is told of his death in battle. Now blind, Chico must find his way back to the woman he loves.