10 French Motion pictures Set in Paris to Transport You There
While your travel plans may be put on hold, you can pretend you’re somewhere new for the night. Home Around the World invites you to channel the spirit of a new place each week with recommendations on how to explore the culture from the comfort of your own home.
“America is my country and Paris is my hometown,” wrote Gertrude Stein. Me too; or almost. For the past few years I’ve been commuting between New York and the French capital, where my current husband worked, and during that time Paris felt like a city where I had history and whose streets I could navigate through muscle memory. Now that the transatlantic voyage is all but set, the screen I can get closest to Paris is on the screen – but luckily the view is amazing.
The first film screening took place in Paris as early as 1895 (although the Lumière brothers shot these first pictures in Lyon). It is still home to the largest and most dynamic film industry in Europe. France exports more films than any other country except the US.
Here I have selected 10 films that will bring me back to Paris from the beginnings of sound cinema to the age of streaming. I’ve left out a lot of Parisian films shot in English, some on soundstages (“An American in Paris”, “Moulin Rouge!”) And others on location (“Funny Face”, “Midnight in Paris”). Instead, I chose the French films that I rely on when trying to flee America to Paris … which is pretty common these days.
Paris today is so much more than its touristic, tree-lined core. It’s continental Europe’s most diverse city, where French mixes with Arabic and Wolof, and you’re more likely to hear Afro traps than Édith Piaf. This assured coming-of-age film by Celine Sciamma follows a young black teenager who overcomes the racial, economic, and cultural differences between Paris (or “Paname” in girls’ jargon) and its suburban housing estates, their architecture, the director films with rare Style and sympathy. Aubervilliers, Bondy, Mantes-la-Jolie, Aulnay-sous-Bois: these hubs in the greater Paris area, birthplace of singers and stylists and the world’s greatest football players, also deserve the spotlight.
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35 shots of rum (2008)
The most intimate and Parisian film by Claire Denis, arguably France’s greatest living director, follows a widowed father who is a train driver and his only daughter, a student, as they reluctantly move away from each other and enter a new life. The cast (including Mati Diop, who has since become an acclaimed director herself) is almost entirely African or Caribbean in origin, yet this is the rare film that takes the diversity of Paris for granted and its portraits of mid-class Parisians north of the capital have an abundance and goodness that are too rare in French cinema. Just as beautiful as the scenes of family life are Ms. Denis’ frequent, continuous shots of the RER, the Parisian S-Bahn, which here appears as a bridge between the worlds.
Love Songs (2007)
The almost complete one of this gray-soaked musical – directed by Christophe Honoré and with a dozen tunes by singer-songwriter Alex Beaupain – is set in the gentrifying but still unkempt 10th arrondissement, where I bring a few too many drinks back to my 20s . As the young lovers sing on some of Paris’ least photogenic streets, on their Ikea sofas or in their overlapping offices, the capital transforms into something even more enticing than the City of Light of strange fantasies. This is the movie to watch if you miss the daily grind in Paris today, where even the cloudy days deserve a song.
Full moon in Paris (1984)
Paris had a very good 80s: think of the Louvre pyramid, think of Concorde, think of Christian Lacroix. Éric Rohmer’s story of an independent young woman who wants to hold onto both her boyfriend and her apartment features the chicest dissection of Parisian youth – tall-haired models dancing in Second Empire ballrooms and lovers at coffee tables and beds philosophize the other. There’s a killer 80s score by electro-pop duo Elli et Jacno, but what makes its beauty so bittersweet is its sublime star Pascale Ogier, who died shortly after the film was completed at the age of 25.
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It was a date (1976)
It’s only eight minutes long, there is no dialogue, but this is the wildest movie ever made in Paris. It’s a miracle no one died. One early morning, the director Claude Lelouch got into his Mercedes, attached a camera to the bumper, and simply set it on the floor: down the wide Avenue Foch (where it drives 125 miles per hour), through the Louvre, past the opera, through red lights and around blind corners and even on the sidewalks, to the heights of Sacré-Cœur. Every time I look at it, I cover my eyes and then laugh at the madness of it all: cinéma vérité at top speed.
It’s 5 p.m. on June 21, the longest day of the year, and pop singer Cléo has gone to a fortune teller to find out: is she dying? And for the rest of Agnès Varda’s incomparable period of life, we follow her in real time – one minute on the screen corresponds to one minute in the story – across the left bank of the capital. She walks past the cafés of Montparnasse, down the wide Haussmann boulevards and into the Parc Montsouris, where in Algeria she meets a soldier on leave from the front: another young Parisian who is not sure whether he will live another year becomes. While Cléo puts her superstitions aside, the streets of Vardas Paris serve as accelerators for a woman’s self-esteem.
HBO Max, criterion channel
Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film is so celebrated for its innovative jump-cuts and career narrative that we forget: This is without a doubt the greatest film ever made about an American in Paris. As the exchange student haggling for the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs-Élysées, Jean Seberg gives the film an airy expatriate glamor that feigns French carefree but clings to the American wonder. And when her language skills are in doubt – my French husband mimics Seberg’s franglais when he tries to mock my accent – she embodies the dream of becoming someone new in Paris, even if you fall in love with the wrong person.
HBO Max, Criterion Channel, YouTube, iTunes
Bob the High Roller (1956)
The most polite of all Parisian gangster films – and my day-long film in bed – circles the pretty narrow streets of the Montmartre hill and south of the shabby nightclubs and arcades of Pigalle. Bob, the title’s sleek, white-haired “high roller” is a retired bank robber after one last big score, but the old Parisian underground and its old loyalty codes are disappearing. The cast is undoubtedly a B-list, and genre conventions cling to their roles like barnacles: the world-weary but wise cafe owner, the whore with a heart of gold. But watch Melville’s handheld camera follow Bob in a trench coat and fedora or follow a garbage truck like a ball in a roulette wheel around Place Pigalle. Paris looks like a jackpot.
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Golden helmet (1952)
We are in the northeast of the Parisian working class in this painful drama of the Belle Epoque directed by Jacques Becker and starring Simone Signoret as the eponymous golden-haired prostitute caught between two lovers. It is based on a true story of a courtesan and the gang murders she inspired – but Mr. Becker paints the scene like a dream of the 19th century capital, of cobblestone streets, smoke-covered bistros and horse-drawn traveling wagons.
Boudu saved from drowning (1931)
Jean Renoir’s early satire plays Michel Simon as an amazingly bearded tramp who walks halfway across the Pont des Arts one fine morning and leaps into the Seine. Rescued by a friendly bookseller, Boudu moves into his apartment and immediately turns his family’s life upside down. Film’s impaling of middle-class values hasn’t lost its bite, but its exterior shots of the Latin Quarter, a university district that hasn’t been overrun with tourist-trapped cafes, have become a poignant time capsule.
Criterion channel, Kanopy