The films in this list may range widely in style and subject, from brooding dramas to spectacular action movies, from French New Wave masterpieces to slightly dated 80s thrillers; some are French productions while others are American movies filmed in Paris, but one thing is true of all of them: they couldn’t have been set anywhere else. It’s a cinematic shorthand for sex, deception, indulgence, corruption, illicit affairs and the aspirational bourgeois dream, and all the dark deeds that go on behind its designer exterior. The grandeur and shadows of its boulevards and narrow side streets instantly put an audience in a place where beautiful people do questionable things, telling us that this is a film where the outwardly respectable won’t give their moral compass a second glance if it gets in the way of their desires. It’s no coincidence that several films listed here feature prostitutes – the lowest of polite society’s moral low – who, relative to the rest of the characters, are actually the most upstanding and moral of the lot.
Paris and French cinema have had a huge influence on what and how I write. For All Neon Like Love I wanted each sentence to be like a frame in a French film: an atmosphere, a mood, a state of mind of which the events are the inevitable byproduct, not the driving force. And I wanted to use the city to seduce the central character with a romantic vision of what life could be like with Sophie, the object of his obsession, and to ultimately leave him broken as the truth behind the beautiful facade of Sophie starts to reveal itself. Paris helps create the illusion and then helps shatter it.
That the events in these films could only happen in Paris, is exactly why the characters ended up there. Like the protagonist in All Neon Like Love, they are lost souls, looking not so much to find themselves but to escape who they are or fear they might be, looking to disappear on the crowded boulevards or find kindred spirits – losers, criminals, romantics – in the backstreet bars and clubs where rich and poor gorge themselves on all the pleasures the city of light has to offer. In all these cases, as with All Neon Like Love, Paris isn’t just where things happen, it’s why they happen.
Killing Zoe (1993)
Despite being written and directed by Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avery, and executive produced by Quentin Tarantino, Killing Zoe is most definitely a French film. From the opening shots of a cab driving through the streets of Paris to a frenetic soundtrack of early 90s synth-rock, this cult classic is a decidedly arthouse take on the action movie, more about what everyone involved has to lose than explosions. Eric Stoltz is Zed, an American safe-cracker who’s come to Paris to help his old friend Eric, played by Jean-Hugues Anglade, knock off the biggest bank in Paris on Bastille Day. Julie Delpy is Zoe, a prostitute/artist who gets caught between the two. Zed doesn’t really want to be a criminal, Zoe doesn’t really want to be a prostitute and Eric doesn’t really want to get out alive. What could possibly go wrong?
The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)
The cultured and brutal sides of Paris come together in this brooding drama about Tom (Romain Duris), a callous young property developer who makes a living buying apartments and then bullying out the tenants so he can re-let for a profit. He’s not all bad though. Before following his drunk, depressed father into the property business, Tom was set to follow his mother and become a concert pianist. Left angry with the world after her death, he abandoned music, but after a chance meeting with one of her former mentors he starts to wonder if he’s chosen the wrong path, and whether music might save him after all. Culture over commerce. The beautiful over the damned. It doesn’t get much more Parisian than that.
Lift To The Scaffold (1958)
Men wearing cool suits and smoking cigarettes. A tragic femme fatale wandering the rainy streets of Paris at night to a Miles Davis soundtrack. A murder, a mistress, an unintentional and ill-fated chain of events, all played out in black and white. Louis Malle’s 1958 thriller, one of the first of the French New Wave era, is perhaps the most atmospheric and seductive film ever to be set in the French capital. The mix of American film noir and Parisian nonchalance is so incredibly stylish, and the sound of Miles Davis’s lonely trumpet so sweetly melancholic, that if the film isn’t smouldering with longing and desire, it’s aching with longing and regret.
Read My Lips (2001)
Far removed from the glamour of the city, Read My Lips follows the mundane existence of Carla (Emmanuelle Devos), a near-deaf office worker living in the Paris suburbs. Suffocated by a lack of respect and responsibility at work and a lack of anything at all in her personal life, she’s desperate for a purpose and excitement. Both arrive in the shape of new office-boy Paul (Vincent Cassel), a recently released convict looking to go straight, whose criminal past won’t let him. It’s not long before Carla’s efforts to save Paul and make him a nice respectable member of her world lead her into the criminal depths of his, and she finds herself his accomplice in a crime that could ultimately free him. And she finds she likes it. Proof that joie de vivre can be found in the most unlikely of places, including a dangerous estate on the outskirts of Paris.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
While the script, direction and amazingly unHollywood chase sequence of The Bourne Identity all helped make it the first of a new generation of intelligent action movies, it was its European locations that made it feel different. The story of a man with memory loss (Matt Damon) trying to discover who he really is while staying one step ahead of assassins who, for reasons he can’t remember, have been sent to kill him, wouldn’t have had the same air of intrigue and menace had it been set against a more familiar US backdrop – a point proved when the third film in the series arrived back in NYC and it instantly felt like a good if generic spy movie. That most of the action, including that car chase, takes place in Paris, where Bourne discovers that his previous existence involved an affluent lifestyle and an attempt to kill a former African dictator, is essential to setting him up as a pawn in a game of global politics, and instantly makes the stakes seem so much higher.
Le Samouraï (1967)
French screen icon Alan Delon stars as meticulous hitman Jef Costello, who finds himself uncharacteristically on the back foot after a witness sees him kill a nightclub owner and his carefully engineered alibi falls through. One of the most accomplished of the French New Wave films, Le Samouraï is not only amazingly cool, it’s also genuinely gripping as Delon races around Paris in stolen cars and a high-collared raincoat trying to evade the police and his own paranoia. As a genre, French New Wave got much of its cool from its clash of 60s American style and Parisian disdain. What makes Le Samouraï particularly brilliant is the fact that those same looks of disdain are so hard to tell apart from suspicion, which coupled with the sparse dialogue and long shadows serve to up the tension to an almost unbearable level as Costello finds himself increasingly backed into a corner.
Taking French cinema’s liking for opaque storytelling to the extreme, director Michael Haneke’s disturbing drama leaves all of the vital details to the viewers’ imagination. Daniel Auteuil plays a TV presenter whose perfect media life with wife Juliette Binoche is suddenly knocked off course when someone starts posting videos of the outside of their Paris home through their front door. As more videos arrive the sense of threat escalates, and as other items join them it becomes clear that someone or something from Auteuil’s past is out to destroy him, or at least make him very uncomfortable. The who, what and why are less important to Haneke than the effect this sudden menace has on the couple: they’re soon at each other’s throats, Binoche’s support being quickly lost as Auteuil refuses to share whatever it is he’s been hiding all these years. The idea that perfect exteriors hide dark secrets and dysfunctional lives is a universal one, but nowhere does it feel more true than in Paris.
The 80s soundtrack may be so dated it’s almost cool again, and the ending may be ridiculous/disappointing depending on how you feel about convoluted plots and Harrison Ford’s on-screen wife, but Roman Polanski’s Parisian thriller is a classic despite its many flaws. The hook is brilliantly simple: Harrison Ford and his wife arrive in Paris, he takes a shower, when he comes out of the bathroom she’s disappeared without a trace. He then goes all over the city looking for clues as to her whereabouts and why she’s been taken. Preposterous as the truth turns out to be, his journey to discover it, aided by Michelle, a well-meaning if mercenary prostitute (naturally) is fun and suspenseful, and the scene on the rooftop with the suitcase remains heart-in-the-mouth stuff no matter how many times you see it. But the wife is a whiney pain and in real life he’d probably have told them to keep her.
Simon Killer (2012)
As dark and intense as the synths of its electro-pop soundtrack, Simon Killer is another low-budget US production that embraces French cinema’s love of lingering looks, muted dialogue and sinister brooding. We’re told little about US college student Simon other than that he’s fled to Paris after breaking up with his long-term girlfriend, and that the healing process is not going well. Yet as he tries to console himself, first with the company of a beautiful young student who finds his erratic behaviour endearing, and then a beautiful young prostitute who tries to save him, it becomes apparent that there’s more to the break-up and his twitchy behaviour than we first thought. Worth seeing for the club scene where the tension of the music and the unflinching shot of Simon’s possessed dancing will make you fear for the life of his dance partner.
French cinema at its dark, stylish, inventive and thought-provoking best, Irreversible is a film that only needs to be watched once to stay with you forever, and not necessarily in a good way. Real-life husband and wife Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci play a couple whose enviable existence is destroyed when Bellucci’s character Alex is brutally raped and beaten in a Paris underpass. Essentially a revenge story told backwards, it takes us from the bloody aftermath all the way back to the couple’s former bliss, via a rape scene that goes on and on and on and on to the point where it’s hard to keep watching. American film critic Roger Ebert described it as “a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable.” He wasn’t wrong. But equally it’s seductive and mesmerising, even in its violence, to the point where to stop watching isn’t really an option.
Dan Gennoe is a London-based writer and novelist. A former music journalist, he’s written cover features, interviews and reviews for Esquire, GQ, Arena, FHM, Q, Mojo, Red, Time Out, the Independent and the Mail on Sunday. He’s mixed with rappers and rock stars, ghosted the memoirs of a celebrity chef, and lent his musical expertise to Amazon, Yahoo and Google. He now writes stories about lost souls and their need to be found. His debut novel, All Neon Like Love, is published by Joe Bones in paperback and eBook. Read more.