We’ll always have Paris

Charukesi Ramadurai | Updated on January 24, 2018

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A cinema walk reveals the deep bond between the City of Lights and the silver screen

“Suddenly a train appeared. Women cried out in terror. Men threw themselves to one side to avoid being run over.”

This is not a sensational newspaper report of a train accident; this is the reaction to the first ever motion picture screening by the Lumière Brothers, as described by an astute observer. He goes on to end with “It was panic. And triumph.”

I am told this in front of Hotel Scribe. This was once the Grand Café, where this momentous event — 10 films in the course of 20 minutes — took place on December 28, 1895. In a nod to its heritage, Hotel Scribe has a restaurant called Café Lumière.

Clearly, Paris has a long and enduring relationship with cinema, and on this walk, I hope to explore a bit of it.

The walk starts with a peek into one of the locations from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011). Allen has set some key scenes in Polidor, a once fashionable bistro and hangout of artists and writers. Walking into Polidor, I get a feeling that I have stepped into the early 1900s — much like the film’s protagonist, who travels back in time to the ’20s, an era when literary greats like Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein lived in the city. Midnight in Paris is Allen’s third movie set in Paris and his love song to the city, possibly his favourite only after New York.

We are impatient to know about the more popular movies set in Paris and so head off to another neighbourhood. Along the way, guide Juliette Dubois points out filmi landmarks like the Pont des Arts ( Amelie) and Hotel Regina ( The Bourne Identity).

Our destination is Place Vendome, the elegant Parisian square lined by jewellers like Cartier, Boucheron and Van Cleef & Arpels. However, the star in our eyes here is Hotel Ritz, seen in innumerable films, including three starring Audrey Hepburn (no fewer than six of her films were shot in Paris). Standing here at Place Vendome on a grey, rainy day, we watch Bonjour Paris, a delightful song from Funny Face (1957) that takes us through the city with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. Our eyes are glued to Dubois’s iPad as she struggles with an umbrella that threatens to break free.

Why Paris, I ask Dubois, why not any other charming European city, say, Rome or London? That’s when I learn about the Hays Code that Hollywood had imposed on its filmmakers in 1930 (lasting till 1968). It stipulated that no film should ‘lower the moral standards of those who see it’. Major film studios were governed by a production code that required their pictures to be ‘wholesome’ and ‘moral’ and encourage what the studios called ‘correct thinking’. According to Dubois, the censorship was, for some strange reason, far more lenient with films based outside the US. She believes that for many Americans at that time, Paris offered a kind of fantasy escape, prompting filmmakers to script their movies around the City of Lights.

Even without the influence of such moral policing, Paris has always been popular with Hollywood; since 1900, nearly 800 of its films have been set here. And can Bollywood be far behind? Sangam (1964), the first ever Indian movie to be filmed abroad, had a few songs set in Paris, followed soon by An Evening in Paris (1967), shot almost entirely here. Someone pipes up with a remark on Queen (2014), with its clever shots of the Eiffel Tower as an omnipresent feature of the city.

Dubois is obviously at sea when we talk about Bollywood — why not start that tour, the group demands — and we get back to talking about how Paris is strewn with film locations. Not entirely surprising, given that, on average, three films are shot in the city every day.

There are all the usual suspects like Champs Elysees ( The Devil Wears Prada), Arc de Triomphe ( Casablanca), Montmartre ( An American in Paris, French Kiss, Moulin Rouge), all of them locations for plots with strong Paris connections. Then there is the Louvre ( The Da Vinci Code), about which I learn an interesting story. It is not easy to get permission to shoot at the Louvre; it took an intervention by none less than the French President — Jacques Chirac — to get the green signal. The museum acquiesced to filming for six nights, on condition that the set be dismantled every morning.

The trivia makes for more than half the pleasure of this walk. For instance, Moulin Rouge (2001), that quintessential Paris epic, was shot almost entirely in a studio in Australia, with city shots digitally produced. And for The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep didn’t travel to Paris.

We end the tour, fittingly, at Hotel Scribe, spending a few minutes in silence as homage to the world’s first filmmakers. Later, I read that one of the Lumières had remarked, “The cinema is an invention without a future.” If only he knew.

Travel log

Get there

Fly Air France (www.airfrance.com) directly to Paris from Mumbai or Delhi.


Josephine is a boutique hotel with a quirky cabaret theme, and located close to the shopping and entertainment districts (http://en.hotel-josephine.com)


Cinema-themed walks are conducted regularly by Juliette Dubois; contact info@cine-balade.com; cost per person €12-14. To plan your Paris trip, visit Atout France (http://in.rendezvousenfrance.com)


Watch Paris Merveilles, the new show at Lido.

Charukesi Ramadurai is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer-photographer

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Published on June 19, 2015
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