Paris on Film

Paris has long been among the most beautiful and romanticized cities on film. From the Eiffel Tower to the Arc de Triomphe, it is instantly recognizable and usually presented as a city with love lurking around every corner. The French New Wave came along in the late 1950’s with the intention of completely changing the look of French cinema. During that time, French films were mainly being shot in a studio and the directors of the New Wave wanted to take the cinema back into the streets. However, not every Paris-set French film from before the New Wave was filmed in a studio. I will be looking at three films, two from before the New Wave and one from the New Wave: Marcel Carne’s studio-filmed Children of Paradise (1945), Louis Malle’s 1957 film Elevator to the Gallows which was filmed on the streets of Paris and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960.) My focus will be on the representations of Paris in these films and how the New Wave directors took ideas from earlier films and combined them with their own sensibilities and new technologies to craft their own personal vision of the city.

One of the most important things to remember about the directors of the French New Wave is that they began their careers as film critics. The group of filmmakers most commonly referred to as a part of the New Wave all wrote for the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. They had seen many films from all over the world and had clear ideas of what they thought the cinema was supposed to be. These men believed that cinema was art and should make the viewer think and feel. Their intention was to make films as though no one had ever made a film before. Instead of following traditional storytelling structures, they broke free from narrative and experimented with different styles. In 1968, Jean-Luc Godard was asked if he was trying to change the way people watch films; he answered, “I’m trying to change the world, yes.”[1] However, this does not mean that they acted as though they had never seen a film before. They had a great appreciation for many of the directors that came before them (such as French filmmakers Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo and American directors like Orson Welles and John Ford) and were heavily influenced by many of the films they had seen. The legend of the French New Wave is that they threw away many of the rules of filmmaking and used their cinematic knowledge and youthful energy to create an entirely new cinema; however, this may be a bit of an exaggeration. They did innovate in many ways, but glimpses of their respective styles can be seen in earlier French films; even ones that were filmed on elaborate sets instead of on the real streets of Paris. One of those films is Children of Paradise.

Children of Paradise was directed by Marcel Carne who also got his start as a film journalist.[2] (McCann 2011.) The film is about several characters involved in the Parisian theatre scene in the 1820’s and 1830’s, specifically following four men who are all in love with the same woman. The directors of the French New Wave were not the biggest fans of Carne’s work, but even they had a great appreciation for Children of Paradise. New Wave director Francois Truffaut once said, “I would give up all my films to have made Children of Paradise” (quoted in McCann 2011.)

Most of the film takes place on the Boulevard du Temple, which is the location of the theaters that most of the characters work in. This was a real place that was nicknamed the Boulevard of Crime because of the crime melodramas that played in its theaters every night. However, during the reconstruction of Paris in the 1860’s, most of the theaters were destroyed. This meant that Carne and his crew would need to reconstruct what this street would have looked like during the time period of the film. In order to do this, Carne’s art director, Alexandre Trauner, designed an elaborate, expensive set. Building it turned out to be a massive undertaking that took “three months to build, 800 cubic meters of earth was removed and replaced by 35 tons of scaffolding. 350 tons of plaster and 500 square meters of glass were required to build the fifty facades of theatre and other buildings.”[3] Though the directors of the French New Wave did not believe in using sets, the way Carne shot his set is similar to the way they would shoot the real streets of Paris.

We are thrown into this world immediately in a lengthy opening sequence taking place on the Boulevard of Crime. Ben McCann writes, “The camera movements at the beginning of Children of Paradise are analogous to the spectator’s gaze, fleeting and uncertain as to where to look amidst the vast panorama of the Boulevard of Crime.”[4] The street is filled with people, some of them walking, many of them watching carnival acts such as a tightrope walker and a strongman that are scattered throughout the boulevard. The setting is very important to this film, so Carne makes sure it is well established before introducing us to any of the story’s key players. After we begin meeting the leads, Carne is able to use his considerable amount of extras to add a vibrancy to his film and the feeling that life is going on around the major characters. Somehow, even with so much going on in the frame, the street feels full instead of crowded.

The Paris shown in Children of Paradise is beautiful and romantic, but also dangerous and tragic. Even though the Boulevard of Crime was a real place and several of the characters in the film are based on real people, the world they inhabit does not look like a place one could actually visit in the real world. Some of this has to do with the fact that we are now almost two-hundred years removed from the time the film takes place. The period, with its clothing styles and class differences, feels accurate. However, the set itself, while probably true to the real-life Boulevard of Crime, looks like something created for a movie; the seemingly endless line of similar looking buildings appear to loom over the characters, framing them as though they are on a stage. It does not look like it belongs to the real Paris. However, this does not hurt the film because it fits in perfectly with the theatrical world that most of the important characters in the film work in, as well as the tone of the film itself which is essentially romantic tragedy.

Throughout the 1950’s, several directors, such as Jean Renoir, Jules Dassin and Jean-Pierre Melville, decided to move away from the studio look and begin shooting more sequences of their films on the streets of Paris. Much like the French New Wave directors went on to do, they attempted to use actual locations to lend a feeling of reality to their stories and characters. That may not have worked for a larger than life romance like Children of Paradise, but it could work for smaller stories. This approach was not only used for character studies or realist dramas, but for genre films as well. Jean-Luc Godard was certainly not the first director to use the city of Paris to enhance the drama in a story about criminals or gangsters; one of the best examples of this is found in Louis Malle’s crime drama Elevator to the Gallows.

Elevator to the Gallows is about a pair of lovers who come up with the perfect plan to kill the woman’s husband; however, the plan falls apart when the man realizes he has left evidence at the murder scene and becomes trapped in an elevator on his way back to retrieve it. While he is stuck, a couple of teenage lovers steal his car and take it on a joyride that ends in murder. The film jumps between the man in the elevator, the teenagers and the man’s lover as she searches for him when he is late for their rendezvous. This story is told in a style reminiscent of film noir and is shot in a fashion that foreshadows many of the films of the French New Wave.

Throughout the film, we follow the woman, Florence (Jeanne Moreau), as she wanders the streets of Paris looking for the lover she fears has abandoned her. She visits all of their frequent meeting places in a series of sequences that were shot on location in various streets throughout the city. As Roger Ebert writes in his 2005 review of the film, “Malle shot her scenes using a camera in a baby carriage pushed along beside her by the cinematographer, Henri Decae. Her face is often illuminated only by the lights of the cafes and shops that she passes; at a time when actresses were lit and photographed with care, these scenes had a shock value, and influenced many films to come.” Malle uses that lighting as well as a moody jazz score by Miles Davis to successfully convey Florence’s loneliness and quiet despair. The way these scenes are filmed by Malle and Decae (who later worked with a few of the New Wave directors, most notably Francois Truffaut on his 1959 film The 400 Blows), we see other people walking along the streets of Paris, yet somehow they are still able to make it feel like Florence is completely alone. The music and cinematography give Paris a darkly stylized look. The Paris in this film certainly looks more “real” than the elaborate sets created for Children of Paradise and Malle uses this realism as a technique to draw the viewer closer to his femme fatale. The two approaches are equally cinematic; however, for this material, using real locations helps ground these amoral characters and makes it easier for audiences to accept them and believe in them. In the 1940’s, American film noir had used shadows to make their stories appear darker and their characters seem more trapped by fate. Louis Malle took that idea and moved it into the heart of the city. The French New Wave directors, whose stories usually involved criminals, were able to take this style and build upon it.

French cinema had been experiencing some changes throughout the 1950’s. Even though many films were still being shot in studios, more directors were choosing to go out into the city. That development became more pronounced when the first films of the French New Wave made their way to theaters in 1958 and 1959. Things would get even more interesting in 1960 when Jean-Luc Godard released his directorial debut.

Breathless follows a criminal, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), as he flees from the police after stealing a car in Marseille and shooting a policeman. He then drives to Paris where he renews his relationship with an American student. The film deals with his attempts to sleep with her and hide from the police while he waits to collect a debt. In his very first film, Godard is already experimenting with film style, using several innovative techniques and completely ignoring the classical style of filmmaking. As Kohei Usuda writes, “On the vanguard of the ‘New Wave’ of French cinema, Godard liberated the camera from the confines of the studios, and brought it out to the streets of Paris and beyond.”[5]

The first time the viewer meets the female lead, Patricia (Jean Seberg), she is walking up and down the Champs-Elysees selling newspapers. For this scene and a couple of others later in the film, Godard did not block off the area for shooting; the “extras” are people going about their day who just happened to be walking down that street while the scene was being filmed and were caught on camera. You can actually see some of these people looking directly at the camera as they try to figure out what is going on. It is an interesting strategy. Even though Godard is constantly using tricks that remind the audience they are watching a movie (such as the jump-cut or having Michel break the fourth wall by addressing the camera in an early scene), this one does so in a way that makes the scene feel more like a document of a real event. Though they were filming a work of fiction, Belmondo, Seberg, Godard and his crew were really on that street surrounded by actual denizens of Paris.

The majority of Breathless takes place either in Patricia’s apartment or in the streets. The two central characters do a lot of walking in the film, usually while Michel is trying to convince her to sleep with him or asking her to flee with him to Italy. The camera follows them at street level allowing the viewer to watch them as though we are the pedestrians walking through the scene as it was being shot. This is much the same way that Louis Malle filmed Elevator to the Gallows; these films were not shot with a tourist’s eye. In both films, the camera is a character and it is as much a part of the city as the protagonists are. They do not show us the iconic Paris attractions; instead we see the day-to-day Paris of cafes and street vendors.

Audiences are greatly influenced by what they see on film. The way a city is depicted in movies has a big impact on how the viewers of those films see that city. Paris is usually seen as a picturesque city filled with incredible attractions; it is rarely seen as just another city. The films of the French New Wave did not use Paris in either of these ways; they presented the Paris that they experienced on a daily basis. Marcel Carne proved that filming on a set was not necessarily a negative. The directors of French crime films, such as Louis Malle, showed how to use the city to enhance their stories. In Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard took Carne’s use of large crowds and Malle’s use of the street to add depth to his characters and twisted them into something personal. The French New Wave did not invent the idea of placing their actors in real locations; instead they added their own cinematic style to create something that appeared entirely new.

[1] Kohei Usuda, “The High Solitude of a Rare Bird” Cineaction 1 April 2008: 24-27

[2] Ben McCann, “Marcel Carne” Senses of Cinema March 2011

[3] McCann, “Marcel Carne”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Usuda, “High Solitude”

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Ben Pivoz is currently a junior at Oakland University, though he resides in Farmington Hills, Michigan where he has lived his whole life. Ben is majoring in Cinema Studies because of a very strong interest in film and film history. He hopes that he will be able to continue writing about film long after his studies have ended. The idea for this essay came from Ben’s interest in French cinema, specifically from the 1940’s through the French New Wave in the 1960’s. He has long been intrigued by the way the directors of the French New Wave filmed Paris and this essay gave him an opportunity to look at what influenced them in the previous two decades of French cinema.