Some places have a love affair thrust upon them by art. Paris is certainly a city loved by film, arguably in ways few other cities do. Certainly it's a city where the film makers are prepared to collude in the myth and avoid the seedier side of the reality; something that Venice, for instance, doesn't receive. London and New York have the gritty films out of the traps -- there are love stories filmed there, but few that are love affairs with those two rumbustious metropoli.
Here's a set of four films featuring the lighter, gayer side of Paris.
Fauteuils d'orchestre (badly translated as 'Orchestra Seats' for the English release, excepting the USA which gets 'Avenue Montaigne' instead; another fine example of importers' disservice to their art.) Starring Cécile De France as the protagonist, showing remarkably poor taste -- the man she gets it together with is clearly going to be a relationship disaster.... However this saves the film from descending into too much high quality sugar; and while the plot doesn't bear much examination, it is an enjoyable ode to a kind of up-market side to Paris. It got quite a hammering in the reviews; here's a more positive one.
It works well as a chance for good actors to show their stuff (sometimes over-egging it!) and some not-quite-fully-realised exploration of the nature of art and the bourgeoisie's relationship to it. The back story to the pianist's antipathy to the stranglehold of concerts is based on the (real) pianist's rather dramatic battles against the same stultifying suits and building.
But one of the favourite actors in the film was the theatre building. Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a great Art Deco building with swoonable banisters. A certain pointy tower is dragged into the background with monotonous regularity, and they also use a typical Paris café carefully, as one could almost see them avoiding...
Amélie, or in French 'Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain', who needs no introduction here, I'm sure, but is in so many ways a precursor to Seats. The difference is clear, too, in that Amélie makes no attempt to be 'realistic' but works as a kind of semi-adult fairy tale.
Which leads neatly to Ratatouille, one where the film-makers stuck to their guns with the title (helped by the integral nature of it to the story) to the extent of having a pronunciation guide below on the posters for certain markets.
Yes, this too has a certain metal tower plonked in many shots, but the focus is in the detail - of the rats, the food, the idea of good food (another blow for diversity, along with the title) and the details of Paris' buildings and the cars and mopeds -- delightfully exaggerated. For the detail geeks, Colette's motorbike bears a recognisably foodie Italian brand, but I need a Pixar 2CV.
I also want to know why Pixar, having worked so hard to get the food and dining experience right, can't tell the difference between herbs and spices?
Still Pixar managed to do a lot better than the remarkably, joyfully bad back projection in the film that gave us our title. While Rick and Ilsa may always have Paris, Warner Bros and Michael Curtiz had to do without, due to a number of Germans on site. Casablanca is a classic for many reasons, but its 'Paris' is not one of them.
Finally comes Paris, je t'aime, a film we both enjoyed enormously, and a good pick for a desert island movie. It's short story format shows what diversity film can have. From the pretentious to the touching, from the comically exaggerated -- including mime -- to the remarkably understated, it seems to have a little of everything that cinema does well. A stellar cast helps, while guessing the director for each section is a good game. While this shows many other sides of the city, and many sequences don't actually have that tower featured -- probably against some Parisien filming ordinance. Some episodes are one trick denouements, but that only throws the re-viewer back on the acting and direction -- and the background city so much in the foreground.
Are there other Parisien films that should be included? Are there other cities that regularly have film-makers turn up to sell the light, lovable myth? Let us know your thoughts, and we may return to this topic.
[Stills & poster from film publicity - of course. Credited as such.]