So a La La Land, the most L.A.-centric of movies, has copped the lion’s share of this year’s Oscar nominations. I’m charmed that this new musical film lovingly presents a romantic, technicolor vision of the city of my birth. And yet, within the film’s (rather slight) story, it’s Paris that remains the place of glamour and opportunity. Spoiler alert: It’s Mia’s trip to Paris that turns her world around and makes her dreams come true.
I’m sure this irony wasn’t lost on filmmaker Damien Chazelle, who borrowed heavily from old French musicals when writing and directing La La Land. The movie’s already-famous opening, in which freeway commuters leap out of their vehicles and proceed to sing and dance, is a direct steal from Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort. This 1967 flick begins when the members of a traveling carnival troupe spring from their caravan of trucks to stage an impromptu musical number in the middle of a country road. Demy’s French-language film also features both Gene Kelly and George Chakiris of West Side Story fame, thus reminding us of the long artistic connection between France and Hollywood. Kelly was, of course, the star of the 1951 Best Picture musical, An American in Paris, which ends in a fantasy ballet sequence that’s either breathtaking or brain-numbing, depending on your point of view. Some of the spirit of that ballet has also found its way into the conclusion of La La Land.
Despite its Paris setting, An American in Paris was made almost entirely on the MGM lot in Culver City, California. For Casablanca, filmed as World War II raged, a romantic Paris flashback was shot on the designated “French Street” at Warner Bros.’ Burbank studio. The original 1954 Sabrina also fakes its Paris locales. But eventually, as Hollywood production became more international, actual Parisian locations were put to good use in romances (1957’s Love in the Afternoon and Funny Face, along with 1958’s Gigi) and thrillers (1963’s Charade). The trend certainly continues. Woody Allen set aside his love affair with New York City long enough to shoot the delightful Midnight in Paris (2011) and the second film of Richard Linklater’s Sunrise trilogy—2004’s Before Sunset---also makes use of genuine Parisian byways.
French filmmakers adore the City of Lights too. Paris plays itself in nouvelle vague films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le Metro, and Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7. It’s worth mentioning that when Jacques Demy (Varda’s husband) came to the U.S. to follow up on the international success of his The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, he chose to make his English-language debut, Model Shop (1969) on the streets of Los Angeles. As he later told the L.A. Times, “I came here for a vacation, not to make a movie. But I fell in love with LA. . . . I learned the city by driving—from one end of Sunset to the other, down Western all the way to Long Beach. LA has the perfect proportions for film. It fits the frame perfectly.”
I’ll close with a very charming, very French film that became an international hit (and prompted a craze for taking photo-booth snapshots and sending garden gnomes on trips ‘round the world). Amélie emerged in 2001, and quickly won the love of romantics everywhere. Now it’s a musical headed for Broadway. That’s, I guess, because Paris puts a song in our hearts.
On the other hand, look at 2011’s Best Picture winner, The Artist. It’s a French-made silent film about the glories of early Hollywood, shot entirely in L.A.