Given the sad, sad news coming out of Paris, it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever return to thinking of France’s capital as a place of music, laughter, and romance. But I wouldn’t want jihadi terrorists to deprive me of the image of the City of Light, an enchanted place where joy reigns supreme. That’s why I suspect I’ll turn to my movie memories for consolation.
Hollywood has loved Paris in all four seasons: in the summer when it sizzles, in the winter when it drizzles, and so on. I’ve drawn up a quick list of my very favorites. Among musicals, there’s of course 1951’s An American in Paris, in which Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and George Gershwin combine for a valentine to Paris as a city of love and art. Director Vincente Minelli actually stages the big final dream ballet as an homage to Parisian painters like Dufy and Toulouse-Lautrec. Caron also starred in 1958’s Gigi, a tuneful ode to the Belle Époque Paris of Colette, with its ambiguous morality and wonderful clothes.
Then there’s the irresistible combination of Paris and Audrey Hepburn. In the 1950s and 1960s the charming and beautifully dressed Mlle. Hepburn always seemed to be falling in love in Paris (and with Paris). Take Love in the Afternoon, where the object of her affection was William Holden. And Funny Face, made in the same year, in which Hepburn as a black-clad New York bohemian-type metamorphoses into a Paris fashion model, thanks to the skills of photographer (and love interest) Fred Astaire. In 1963, Hepburn starred with Cary Grant in Stanley Donen’s dazzling Charade, which manages to combine romance with a suspense thriller full of chases and bad guys. Three years later, she played opposite Peter O’Toole in a lighter romantic comedy, How to Steal a Million, set in the world of art forgery.
And let’s not forget the notion of Paris as a culinary capital. In 1954’s Sabrina, a chauffeur’s daughter (Audrey Hepburn again!) transforms her life when she goes off to a Parisian cooking school. When she returns, she’s so chic, and so accomplished in the kitchen, that she wins the heart of both a millionaire playboy (Holden) and his more sensible brother (Humphrey Bogart). It’s amazing what French cooking can do. Which brings me to the Pixar flick Ratatouille, which charmed us back in 2007. Its star, of course, is a rat named Remy, whose mad culinary skills enable a scrawny kitchen underling to rise into the ranks of chefdom, at the same time that he finds romance and the opportunity to launch a bistro. None other than Peter O’Toole voices the role of a stuffy restaurant critic, Anton Ego, who finally re-discovers the joy of eating, thanks to Remy’s skill and dedication. (I get hungry just thinking about the savory pleasures of this film.)
Woody Allen loves Paris, of course. His 2011 Midnight in Paris starts with the story of a romantically-inclined nebbish (Owen Wilson in the Woody Allen-clone role) on a trip to La Ville Lumière with his materialistic fiancée and her folks. Their relationship does not go well, especially after he falls under the spell of true Parisian magic, involving mysterious trips back in time to the era of his expatriate literary heroes, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald among them.
I’ve saved the best for last. There’s not much of Paris in Casablanca, but Rick and Ilsa’s memories of a happier and more peaceful time propel the World War II-era action forward. I feel that Humphrey Bogart says it best, “We’ll always have Paris.”