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Paris in cinema, by Thrya Helgesen

Paris in cinema, by Thrya Helgesen

As I sit through another screening of Bridesmaids laughing at Kristin Wiig’s drunken airplane rant and Melissa McCarthy’s misfortunes in a wedding boutique, I can’t help but appreciate how different this film is from the stereotypical chick flick. While Annie, the movie’s main character, is a lovelorn woman, she expresses her unhappiness with her single status and unemployment through crude, occasionally raunchy humor and sarcasm instead of weeping over a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s at night.

Seeing as I am writing for A Woman’s Paris, it may be unclear what any of this has to do with France or French culture. As unconventional as the women are in Bridesmaids, one common stereotype finds its way into the film: the women’s perception of Paris. The first mention of the city arrives during discussion of Lillian’s bridal shower. As the maid of honor, Annie suggests a Paris-themed party, complete with little cookies and “cheese from the expensive part of the store,” where the bride has always dreamt of going for unspecified reasons. However, Helen, Lillian’s newest friend, comments that the French theme is unoriginal and that the group should brainstorm for fresh concepts.

While Annie’s plans go awry due to food poisoning and fears of flying, her party-planning rival turns the Paris idea into a reality. Amongst an Eiffel Tower sculpture, giant cookie, chocolate fondue fountain, French champagne, and puppies adorned with berets, Annie’s frustrations finally boil over as Helen surprises the bride with a trip to France to meet a world-famous French dress designer as a pre-wedding gift. Although the French theme is exaggerated in the film for comic effect, it acts as a clear example of how France is often portrayed in American films and culture. Regardless of how over-the-top Bridesmaids’ portrayal is, the shower is undeniably beautiful and has a sense of elegance and romance in spite of itself. I come to wonder whether American movies simply present an accurate perception of France, or have created a romantic, idealistic perception of the country that has come to be understood as truth over the years. Having never been to France and growing up in a culture saturated with media and technology, it becomes easy to accept the former idea unquestioningly. Who wouldn’t want to believe that he or she could travel to a place known for its beautiful art, food, wine, and language of love?

One night, I came to the realization that this portrayal of France can be embedded in one’s mind at a young age, without even recognizing it. While idly searching for movies to watch on Netflix, I was excited to see that Disney movies had been added to the site’s library. As nearly every animated movie I still own is on VHS, I was looking forward to watching some of my favorite childhood films again, starting with The Aristocats, which I remembered enjoying solely based on my love for cats at the time.

However, as the movie began, I noticed immediately that it is set in Paris, 1910. With this in mind, I couldn’t help but notice how much emphasis was placed on the kittens’ study of music and art as well as the grace and beauty of Duchess, the kittens’ mother. Her two boys, Berlioz and Toulouse, happen to be named after a painter and composer as well. Naturally, a love story occurs along the family’s adventures upon meeting a stray cat that helps them make their way through Paris to their home. Although Disney has created stories of animals doing anything from sewing dresses for Cinderella and cleaning a home for Snow White, it hardly seems a coincidence that this particular family of cats living in Paris regularly practice music and art in their former opera singer owner’s luxurious estate. The mention of French fine dining in the form of goose “stuffed with chestnuts… basted in white wine” is a bit specific for a children’s film.

As the screenwriters for these movies are primarily, if not entirely, American, is it safe to say that these portrayals reflect an American fantasy of Paris? Several French and American-made films and books, while acknowledging the grandeur of France, often depict a gritty side of the culture, particularly when dealing with crime and the French mob. According to the article “Petty Crime: French Gangster Movies,” French gangster cinema often conveys the message that “even the scummiest outlaws are bound by a moral code that the ordinary, law-abiding citizen cannot understand; and that, in their own convoluted way, gangsters are more principled than the police.” Critically-acclaimed, classic examples of this genre include Le Cercle Rouge (1970) as well as Pépé le Moko (1937). These movies in particular involve jewel heists and gangsters fleeing policemen as they attempt to get away with their crimes rather than the love lives of the criminals or fantastical Parisian dining and vacations. While some films may stray from this generalization, it is safe to say that this image is a far cry from the equally common scenes of romance captured in Paris under the Eiffel Tower.

While beauty and violence may coexist in any country, it is curious to see the dichotomy between Paris as a romantic honeymoon getaway and a city host to organized crime. Perhaps, the only way to gain an understanding of the accuracy of these perceptions is to ask French nationals if either depiction is true. Otherwise, maybe one can choose to immerse him or herself in French culture, attempting to set aside preconceived notions of the City of Love.

Following are some links about the history and future of French cinema, along with the article sourced in this post.




Melissa Larson was born in Japan and raised in Round Lake Beach, Illinois. Melissa is studying International Studies, Japanese, English, and Community and Global Health at Macalester College, St. Paul, MN, and is a student intern at the Minnesota Department of Health and A Woman’s Paris. Melissa will be studying abroad in Denmark in an international public health program later this year and plans to chronicle her first trip to Europe while overseas for A Woman’s Paris. When not rowing on Macalester crew or taking ballroom and salsa dance classes, Melissa enjoys reading and working on her cross stitching in her free time.  

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, 86 Classic French films to watch again and again. French woman Bénédicte Mahé believes that to better understand French pop culture and French people you may meet, you need to have some notion of cinematographic culture. She shares with us important French films (mainly from the 1990s and 2000s) that will help you accomplish just that. (French)

Oscar-winning “Amour” portrays lifelong love as stark, honest. Film critic David Lundin reviews this film that received five surprise Oscar nominations incuding Best Picture and Best Direcor and went on to win for Best Foreign Language Film at the 85th Academy Awards. The withering end of a good life and the limits of love rendered and repeated in prolonged, naturalistic tones. 

A French girl’s favorite films, ‘cuz baby it’s cold outside, by French woman, Bénédicte Mahé who shares the top of her list of “86 Classic French films to watch again and again,” published earlier in A Woman’s Paris. Including film trailers to watch. Also published in French as, “Le cinéma française: je voudrais souligner plus particulièrement trois films.” (French)

Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables,” is big, breathtaking… bland? Film critic David Lundin gives us a view, behind the scenes, of the making of this 2012 Hollywood movi-musical, Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name published in 1862. Les Miserables is an operatic tale of a man’s struggle to find peace against the backdrop of a growing people’s revolution and weaves the stories of a dozen or so primary and secondary characters. (French)

Adventures in film: Bollywood’s “Cocktail.” World traveler Jennifer Haug shares her adventures of discovering other cultures through international film, including the cultural entity of Indian Bollywood film.

Text copyright ©2013 Melissa Larson. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Thyra Helgesen. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.