Friday, March 23, 2012

Paris Past and Present, Afternoon and Midnight

“We’ll always have Paris.” That’s what Rick says to Ilsa just before their final parting in Casablanca, the movie classic now celebrating the 70th anniversary of its release. It’s a reminder that the memory of love can be sweet indeed, and also that the City of Lights is a fabulous backdrop for a love affair. As movies are forever proving, Paris is for lovers, and a romance in the shadow of the Tour d’Eiffel makes everyone slightly Parisian.

So many of my favorite romantic movies are set in Paris. And so many of them star the lithe and lovely Audrey Hepburn. Remember her romancing Fred Astaire in Funny Face? And Cary Grant in Charade? I recently watched Love in the Afternoon, writer-director Billy Wilder’s salute to the frothy romantic comedies pioneered by his idol, Ernst Lubitsch. Gary Cooper plays a wealthy American lothario, who enjoys trysting with available (and not-so-available)Parisiennes, with the help of champagne, a suite at the Ritz, and a discreet gypsy orchestra to set the mood. Maurice Chevalier is all Gallic charm as a private detective who’s on to Cooper’s wiles, but appreciates them nonetheless. And Audrey Hepburn is Chevalier’s cello-playing daughter, innocent but hardly stupid. She becomes infatuated with Cooper’s roguish reputation, appears on his hotel balcony to save him from a jealous husband bent on revenge, and finds herself swept into a romance that can’t be controlled. He’s so intrigued by her quirkiness that by the final fadeout he’s ripe for the plucking. Which means – in true Hollywood fashion – that he’ll marry the girl, change his wandering ways, and live happily ever after.

Love in the Afternoon, Funny Face, and Charade share a filmed-on-location Parisian backdrop. They also share the fact that in each of them the adorable Audrey finds happiness with a man old enough to be her father. For me, imagining a vibrant young Hepburn going gaga for leathery 56-year-old Gary Cooper was definitely a stretch. But her on-screen connection with much older men (let’s not forget Sabrina) does make for a handy segue into the films of Woody Allen. Needless to say, the Woodman has long seemed to have a penchant for sweet young things, in life as well as in films like Manhattan. It’s interesting to speculate what Allen would do with a film adaptation of Lolita. Fortunately, his most recent work has left the teenagers alone, and concentrated strictly on (nominal) grown-ups.

In the Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris, Allen has made the most of his opportunity to film in spectacular French locations: the Musée de Rodin, the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, Monet’s garden at Giverny. His Paris is gloriously romantic, but this is not (entirely) the story of a man who finds love with a beautiful young woman. Owen Wilson’s Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, already has a beautiful fiancée (Rachel McAdams). Problem is: he’s a romantic, and she’s a material girl with zero appreciation for Paris in the rain: “What's wonderful about getting wet?” Magically, Gil time-travels to his favorite era, Paris in the Twenties, where he meets Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the flapper of his dreams. Ultimately, he sadly concludes it’s wiser to stay in the present, a time blessed with such amenities as penicillin and novocain. But if he can’t choose his own era, he can at least choose his own locale. Henceforth, he’ll work on his novel in a city which -- past or present – exerts a special magic. At the end, a new romance seems to be blooming. But in any case, he’ll always have Paris.

(This post is for Laura Burns, diligent screenwriting student and unabashed Casablanca fan.)


  1. I went out Wednesday night to a screening of Casablanca with the Mrs. It was wonderful to see it on The Big Screen again. (I saw a re-release of the 50th anniversary too!) I liked the movie the first time I saw it - and my affection for it has grown with each viewing - I love it now. Such a perfect concoction of elements alchemically forming into a sum greater than the expected merging of its parts. Thank you for celebrating the 70th anniversary too. "We'll always have..." Casablanca...

    1. Mr. Craig, you make me feel romantic just thinking about this wonderful film. Thanks!