Having just released Pigeon, my second novel set in Paris, I thought I’d share my favorite movies that transport me to the city. They are by no means my take on “the best” (in fact, my personal taste in movies comes through pretty strong in these). But, if you’re traveling to the city of light, these films will absolutely put you in the headspace of being there. In no particular order…
1. Before Sunset
This one is probably my personal favorite of Paris movies, although I admit it’s not for everyone. It’s a real study in relationship through dialogue. Masterfully written. Plus, they capture the feel of Paris perfectly as the two main characters spend the entire movie walking about town. For anyone unfamiliar with the series, Before Sunset is actually a sequel to Before Sunrise (set in Vienna) and a prequel to the third installment, Before Midnight (set in Greece)—all shot nine years apart with the same two principle actors. But in my opinion, Before Sunset doesn’t need either it’s prequel or sequel, and in fact might even be better without seeing the other two first.
2. Day of the Jackal
This is in my top 5 movies of all time. I’ve always thought this is what a thriller is supposed to look like: non-cgi special effects, suspense and tension based on the writing. This is also the movie that really made me realize an important aspect of Paris that I really love. Here in America, our cities are young. Even the old ones have been remodeled and rebuilt over and over again. But Paris has preserved herself. Sure there have been changes throughout history (lots), but not so many that the last few generations have returned to something unfamiliar. When Day of the Jackal was shot in the early seventies, Paris looked largely like it does today. And that’s comforting.
This one might the most creative of the bunch in terms of writing, cinematic execution, the colors—everything. Plus, it’s really what everyone (at least of my generation) thinks of when they think of French movies. It is still immensely popular with audiences, recently spawning a Broadway musical. The movie is one part whimsy and one part indie film heavyweight, and I can’t tell which one dominates—and I’m okay with that.
4. Midnight in Paris
First and foremost, this is a beautiful movie. Woody Allen has gone out of his way to capture the look and feel of Paris in a warm way. I realize that his style isn’t for everyone, but I’d say that this is one of his most appealing films for general moviegoers. The casting and acting are perfect. The story is creative and fun. The only hangup I have on this one relates to Woody’s personal history, which begs a conversation about whether or not to separate the art from the artist. But, for me, that conversation is a complicated one and deserves proper time and space elsewhere. The bottom line for this list of movies: Midnight in Paris will take you there, and you’ll probably love it.
This is classic wife-saving Harrison Ford. Regarding it’s relationship to Paris, I love that it’s not the sight-seers paradise the way others on this list might be, but it still puts you there. It might feel a little dated at points, but I think that’s part of it’s charm—particularly since it holds up a little more than some other suspense/thrillers of it’s generation. Being written and directed by Roman Polanski, I’m back to the same “can I separate the art from the artist” discussion that I have with Midnight in Paris.
6. Is Paris Burning?
If you love WWII movies, this one’s your ticket. It’s the definition of epic: long, beautiful, and stuffed full of big star cameos. Released in 1966, it’s a really lovely portrait of Paris in black and white. A great rainy day or home-sick-from-work day movie. And even though there is very little believable violence in contrast to what we see in today’s war movies (there’s still shooting and death, but it’s the kind of death scenes we act out as kids when we clutch our chest, grunt, and fall over), or even any graphic suffering, but the tremendous pain of the holocaust still rings every now and then in Is Paris Burning?. That stuff never gets easier to watch, and this movie doesn’t lean on it, but it’s there and that’s important. Plus, it really rounds out the experience of the war at the tail end of the occupied Paris era. Released in 1966. I can’t find a good trailer for this one, so here’s the opening sequence:
7. Paris, Je t’Aime
This charming film is actually 18 short films, each crafted by a different noteworthy director and featuring a different neighborhood in Paris. It’s a nice tribute to the city, which the watcher will see a good amount of (maybe more so than most of the other films on this list due to the diversity in locales). Some of the short films are funny, some sad, some poignant, but all are meaningful. Plus, it’s a mix of genres that actually works when put together. On top of famous directors, you’ll get a lot of famous faces here too.
8. Camille Claudel
This one is a must for fans of the sculptor, Rodin. And if you’re planning a trip to Paris, this movie paired with a visit to La Musée Rodin is also a good move. It’ll add behind-the-scenes meaning to individual pieces of art as well as give some depth into who Rodin and Claudel were as characters. Although I fully recognize that the movie may not be 100% accurate historically (after all, the actors are portraying interpretations affected by modern perspectives, among many other factors), it still lends insight where I hadn’t seen insight at the museum. The movie does a great job of bringing that era of Paris, the statues, and the people to life.
I know that Hugo has been billed at times as a children’s movie, but it is so much more complex than that label suggests. The story is ultra rich. The characters are perfect. The colors are vibrant. And the ending has enough big payoffs to make the run time feel worth it. This is classic Scorsese storytelling without the blood. My father, who is particularly picky in his choices of movies made after the seventies, deemed this as possibly the best movie he’s ever seen. That’s really saying something.
For the final pick: Sure, I could have gone with DaVinci Code (which doesn’t feel like it’s out to capture the city as much as the story, which is okay), Paris When It Sizzles (another fav, but shot on a lot of sound stages, so not necessarily a good view of the city), Paris (The 2008 film with Juliette Binoche), 2 Days in Paris, Moulin Rouge, How to Steal a Million, or any of the other countless movies set in the world’s most beautiful city. But I didn’t.
10. Lost in Paris
This one is definitely the wild card of the bunch. Here’s what I loved about Lost in Paris. I have no idea what the budget was, but it looks low—but not in a bad way at all. The characters are funny. Some of the gags are downright vaudevillian, which I love. The storyline is creative and isn’t told 100% linearly, which is also something I attempted in my first book. So I was inspired by that. Plus, it’s brand new. Sure, it’s untested by time, but I really feel compelled to root for the rookie in this instance. I’m officially a fan.