Is it possible to fall in love with someone without ever having met them?
This is the question that comes to mind when I think about the relationship between Paris and me. Ever since I was little, I have loved Paris and France as a whole. To me, Paris represented everything I wanted to be and cherished. It was a dreamy, beautiful city filled with artistic inspiration, diversity, and a rich history. It was pure poetry on a page. I mean, just the language itself is so beautiful that I fell under its charms and learned French throughout school.
This summer, I was so ready to get on the plane for my first in-person rendez-vous with the City of Light. Yet, the coronavirus thwarted my plans. Was I bitter? Un peu. But I guess distance makes the heart grow fonder. Until I could actually place my feet on Parisian ground, I’ve had to find a new route to my destination. Tossing the map aside, I’ve instead turned to TV and films to help transport me to Paris.
In recent months, I’ve gone through the most popular French films and American films set in France to see if I could feel a bit more Parisienne. With each French-inspired story, location and character, I could see how a film has shaped my understanding of Paris and the French…for better or worse.
1. “Midnight in Paris”
This is one of my favorite movies. Fitzgerald, rain, and jazz music…what’s not to love? The film centers around a nostalgic American screenwriter coming to Paris with his fiancé’s family. While there, he finds a way to travel back in time to Paris at the height of its glamour and glitz in the 1920s where he meets great cultural icons and expats like Dali, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Josephine Baker. I particularly love the film’s two themes of art and inspiration. Paris is known as a center for artistic expression and creativity, and we see and feel that through this film. Not only are the characters artists who have found Paris to be their muse, but the cinematography of the film is an ode to Paris itself.
2. “Call My Agent!”
I think this Netflix show is so clever and funny. It’s about a talent agency in Paris called ASK and the lives of the agents who work there. They work with famous actors, and the real French stars play themselves on the show. You can spot Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Hupert, Jean Reno, and Monica Belluci among others. Over the episodes, you start to grow accustomed to the many hilarious situations and the crazy lengths these agents will do to help their clients. I never knew how much goes on behind the scenes for movies. The scenes and dialogue are quintessentially French. What I loved was the hustling, working side of Paris this show revealed. There is a drive in the agency and throughout the city. Plus, I loved learning about French cinema and the major players in the arena. France has a rich cinema tradition that many Americans overlook.
This is one of the classic French films that’s made its way to the U.S. It’s a quirky film with one of the best screenplays. Amélie is a shy waitress who decides to change the lives of those around her for the better as she struggles with finding her own love. It perfectly captures the whimsical, dreamlike nature of Paris. The film is set in a postcard-like setting with hazy filters. There are multiple surrealist elements like moving pigs, animations, a TV talking to characters, and frantic film editing. There are also eccentric characters like a man who paints the same Renoir painting every year, and a hypochondriac woman. It’s definitely a bizarre dream world, but that’s Amélie’s Paris. Paris takes the form of our own dreams.
In need of some action, I decided to watch the Netflix hit show “Lupin.” Everyone, even in the U.S, was talking about it and for good reason. The show is about Assane Diop who, inspired by the beloved gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, steals a diamond necklace to clear his family’s name of a crime. Throughout the show, he creates multiple stunts and disguises to escape being caught, using the charm that Lupin is famous for. For me, it was my first introduction to the prominent French literary character. It reminded me that French culture has their own unique literary tradition. It was a surprising realization. Tales I grew up with like Rip Van Winkle or Mother Goose are ingrained in American culture. I take for granted that everyone knows them. Yet, halfway across the world, kids cherished stories I’ve never heard of. They would be surprised I don’t know Arsene Lupin. There is a whole host of literary characters I still need to meet.
5. “Chef’s Table”
Imagine a marriage of duck and chicken, where the duck is sewn in with the chicken. This bizarre dish is one of the many extraordinary and exquisite dishes you see featured in “Chef’s Table.” This popular show on Netflix takes you through France’s top restaurants and the discerning renowned chefs behind them. For me, it was a great way to see first-hand how French agriculture and gastronomie come together in a unique culinary tradition. Food is a huge part of French culture and values. As an American, this was the first time I saw cooking as an art form and the amount of sheer creativity that can go behind each dish.
6. “Emily in Paris”
I know, I can feel the head-shaking through the screen. But there is a reason I put this on the list so hear me out. For context, the Netflix show was made as an almost French response to “Sex and the City,” a Sex and the Cité if you will. The show itself is about a young marketing exec from Chicago who is asked to help with “American relations” for a partner firm in Paris. While in the French capital, she deals with cultural differences, work, romance, and friendship. Add in some fashion, and voilà, you have “Emily in Paris.”
The show excels in portraying a romanticized view of Paris, featuring all the beautiful, popular touristy spots like the Latin quartier or Montmartre. Even Emily’s chambre de bonne is huge! I recognize how clichéd this version of Paris is. Americans tend to see Paris as “La Vie En Rose” all the time, buying into a stereotyped image. Yet, I wonder if there is at least some truth to this representation. Paris has its fair share of striking architecture and stunning fashion, after all.
But what is the real beauty of Paris that makes everyone talk about it once they’ve visited?
Is it just the picture-postcard neighborhoods “Emily in Paris” shows? Maybe for some. But maybe it’s more. Perhaps it’s the artistic tradition that “Midnight in Paris” illustrates, the dedication to food and taste like “Chef’s Table” talks about or the literary richness that “Lupin” brings to light. Or maybe it’s all of that.
Through these movies and shows, I’ve realized there is a rich culture, a way of life, and a beautiful aesthetic that come together to make Paris truly one of a kind. I can picture myself reading Lupin’s adventures at a small cafe, actually taking time in my day to enjoy my meal, and feel like I’m in my own world. The screens have helped me get that taste of Parisian life until I can finally be there in person.