Sometimes, the city in which a movie is set plays a role more important than that of the main characters and the City of Love, in particular, has long been a favorite of filmmakers. Here are a few films where, even when cast alongside screen legends like Audrey Hepburn and Marlon Brando, Paris was undoubtedly the star.
The story of a beautiful but frivolous woman who sells her earrings to pay off her debts, Madame de… is widely considered a perfect film. In the words of Robert Ebert, “It creates a heart and breaks it.” Madame de… explores the sordid underbelly of a city at its glittering height. And, in this emotionally profound adventure of artificial opulence and its carnal consequences, the ornate ballrooms and lush boudoirs of fin-de-siècle Paris are characters as important as any other.
This movie is the reason most every American woman alive believes she is meant to fall in love while in France. In Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave classic, a dashing criminal shoots a police officer, falls in love with an American woman and tries to convince her to run away with him. The film was primarily improvised and, as a result, the character of the city is more spontaneous and lively than in other portrayals. It’s not so much a place one would vacation as an impossibly sexy city where one could fully live.
Often referred to as “the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made,” Stanley Donan’s Charade features a great line-up of talent including Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant but, really, their appearance here is negligible because Paris is the star. As Audrey and Cary track down a lost fortune and ancillary characters keep turning up murdered in their pajamas, we’re treated to stunning views of the city. Curiously, the characters seem comically oblivious to its charms. At one point, upon looking up and noticing his proximity to Notre Dame, Cary Grant exclaims, “When did they put that there?” He says this and we laugh because we, as viewers, have been privy to the beauty around them all along.
Pussycat (Woody Allen’s screenwriting and acting debut) is a lighthearted comedy in which a hedonist refuses to marry his true love and solicits advice from a psychologist, who is equally sex-obsessed. One of the great screwball comedies of the 60s, Pussycat takes us to a Paris that is colorful, energetic and riotously fun— not to mention, teeming with sex.
In contrast to Breathless, Last Tango is probably the reason middle-aged American men are reluctant to fall in love in France. While it’s infamous for Marlon Brando’s innovative use of butter, Last Tango legitimately changed the art form of film. It’s a stark, deliciously filthy gem, and the Paris we see in it is appropriately spare and grim. Much of the action occurs indoors but the characters head out to a tango bar at the film’s climax, and the lush haze of yellow and red will be at once instantly familiar to anyone who has ever reeled half-drunkenly around l’Etoile at 2 a.m.