Paris and cinema go together like coffee and croissants. After all, ‘the movies” as we know them were born in Paris and what better way to see the City of Light than through films that will make you laugh out loud, ponder and come away with that much more knowledge of French culture, French idiosyncracses and of course, the beautiful city of Paris which acts as the perfect cinematic backdrop to any story. To get you started, here’s a list of movies designed to prepare you for a visit to France’s capital as you experience it first through a lens, and then through your own eyes.
1. Amelie (2001)
Amelie is one of the most successful French films to date, nominated for five Academy awards when it came out in 2001 and still to this day, the highest grossing French-language film in the USA. Unashamedly quirky but never sickeningly sweet, it tempers the lead character’s optimism with a healthy dose of supporting cynical characters. Whilst other films have revealed the darkness of the city of Paris, Amelie gives it a rose-tint that makes every frame picture perfect, making it the ideal feel-good movie.
2. The Dreamers
Set against the background of the ’68 Paris student riots, The Dreamers is one of Bertolucci’s more personal films following his Last Tango In Paris outing (also shot in Paris). Based on Gilbert Adair’s novel The Holy Innocents, the movie follows three film-obsessed kids – American exchange student Matthew and French twins Théo and Isabelle as they prance around Paris and explore their sexuality with each other. Watch out for the scene where the trio run through the Louvre, a nod to Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part.
3. Paris Je T’Aime (2006)
This film doesn’t follow one narrative but is a collection of short films set around the French capital. Bringing together exceptional directors of both French and international origin, it is by turns affecting, witty and highly observant of all of Paris’ tiny quirks. A particular highlight is Alexander Payne’s great sequence following a mature French language student from America, played by actress Margo Martindale. Enjoying her very first trip to Paris, she narrates everything we see in hilariously over-pronounced beginner’s French.
4. Ratatouille (2007)
Pixar’s homage to French cuisine is one of its lesser watched films and yet it’s also a hidden gem of an animated film. Embracing the city and it’s beloved culinary reputation, Paris even looks stunning in cartoon form. In true Pixar fashion it’s an unusual story, as we are introduced to a rat called Remi who dreams of creating food worthy of several Michelin stars. Going against his father, who believes that all rodents should happy with their daily portion of garbage, he travels to Paris and meets a hopeless trainee chef. Together they attempt to create food designed to impress even the most refined palettes.
5. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (2010)
Luc Besson remains a prolific director and some years after his edgy film Subway he created this fun little fantasy movie, based on a French comic book. Despite its mouthful of a title, Adele Blanc-Sec’s adventures in early 1900s Paris and beyond are by turns surreal and witty. Adele is a great character too, constantly brave in the face of danger. It’s also nice to see Paris portrayed in a different time period, back when corsets were the norm and street lamps were still lit by a flame every evening.
6. Midnight in Paris (2011)
Woody Allen has been dedicating his films to some of the best known European cities for some time, from Vicky Christina Barcelona to one of his recent best, Midnight in Paris. The film opens with an exquisite sequence as, for around four minutes, we are introduced to shots of the city soundtracked by Sidney Buchet’s joyful jazz music. The film takes on an unexpected fantastical twist, as a tired Hollywood screenwriter called Gil Pender finds himself transported into his dream era of Paris in the 1920s. There he meets some of the best known artists and writers congregating at that time, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Pablo Picasso. It’s a treat for literature and art fans and reminds us that the past is easily romanticised by those who didn’t experience it.
7. Before Sunset (2004)
This movie is the second instalment of a trilogy by Boyhood director Richard Linklater, who used a long time period between the films to periodically return to the central relationship. Starring French actress Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, they’re all self-contained films, and you won’t lose out by picking up the trilogy halfway through. This film is the only one set in Paris, as the couple spend one afternoon working out the truth behind their past love affair. It’s romantic and thoughtful, and gives us a good tour of the city in the warm summer sun.
8. Funny Face (1957)
A classic American musical scored by composer George Gershwin and starring the inimitable Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, Funny Face has a sweet plot and all the schmaltz you could possibly need. Hepburn plays a bookish clerk, who wants to go to Paris to learn. She gets her chance when a photographer played by Astaire spots her modelling talent and whisks her off to the French capital. Although she was already an established film actor by this point, this movie was Hepburn’s debut screen musical, and it showcases her dancing and singing skills that had been well honed on stage. They’re really great musical sequences too, one of which is on the Eiffel Tower itself.
9. Charade (1963)
It certainly looks like Audrey Hepburn is everyone’s favourite Parisian tour guide because here’s yet another Hepburn starer set in the City of Light. (The legendary actress has four films shot in Paris!). This time Hepburn plays the widow of a veteran who gets caught up in an intrigue with one of her late husband’s war buddies Peter Joshua aka Cary Grant. The lightweight, romantic thriller directed by Stanley Donen showcases iconic locations in Paris like the Palais Royal and Hotel Saint Jacques, both of which you’ll be able visit on your trip to Paris.
10. The Red Balloon (1956)
A short film directed and written by Parisian Albert Lamorisse, it’s a beautiful tale of a young boy who finds a red balloon that begins to follow him around the city. Filmed in the Ménilmontant neighbourhood when it was still run down after the previous century’s conflicts, it’s a perfect time capsule of the area back then. Lamorisse cast his son Pascal as the young lead actor and he’s adorably tenacious as he negotiates his surroundings. It was also the first short film to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, a record that has not been broken since. You’ll fall in love with the Paris of the past watching The Red Balloon, and it’s the perfect film to finish off a Parisian-themed movie marathon!