Go ahead and hate me, but I’m spending the month in Paris. The downside is I’m super distracted, the upside is that I’ve got Paris on the brain! So let’s take a look at my personal top five films that give a sense of the city of Paris as it was historically. It’s important to note that films set at Versailles are not the same thing as Paris, so I’m excluding a whole bunch (hey, top five movies set at Versailles — that should happen!).
First, I need to give an honorary mention to Jefferson in Paris (1995) for its view of 18th-century Paris. I decided not to include it on this list because although we have yet to do a deep dive, it’s still been featured a ton on this site. Also, Midnight in Paris (2011) should probably be number one on this list for its depiction of 1920s Paris, but again we’ve featured it a number of times, and I think most people have seen it, and I wanted to focus instead on some less obvious contenders.
Cousin Bette (1998)
Okay, so this one is kind of random: Jessica Lange as a cranky old spinster in this loose adaptation of the 1846 Balzac novel. I only watched it once and found it somewhat uninspired, although I enjoyed Elisabeth Shue as courtesan Jenny Cadine, Kelly Macdonald as Bette’s niece Hortense, and the fact that the costume designer (Gabriella Pescucci) did a really nice job with the 1840s pre-hoop silhouette. That being said, it does stick out in my mind for various scenes set in what I dimly remember to be the public gardens of Paris, and as anyone who has been to Paris can attest, the jardins are critical to Parisian life and atmosphere! Plus, of course, private homes and at least one shot of the monuments of Paris.
Queen Margot (1994)
The bulk of this story takes place in Paris, as this was an era (1572 to be precise) when the French court was still in the city — I’m unclear whether the film is supposed to show the Louvre or Tuileries palaces (or both). But there’s also multiple scenes when characters wander through the streets of Renaissance Paris, both when Margot goes looking for fun (cue the world’s best sex scene), and then during and after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (in which thousands of French protestants were brutally slaughtered). I have no idea if this is what Renaissance Paris really was like, but it certainly gives the right atmosphere!
Swann in Love (1984)
Jeremy Irons is obsessed with a courtesan in 1870s Paris. Okay, so this adaptation of the Proust novel didn’t 100% thrill me, but the costumes (by Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle) are STUNNING. And, more importantly for our theme, there are numerous scenes set in the streets, gardens, and restaurants of Paris. It’s one of those films that really gives a sense of the whole fin-de-siècle Paris scene.
Yet another film with somewhat annoying characters (Michelle Pfeiffer is an older courtesan in a relationship with a much younger, bourgeois man), but who cares when you’ve got jaw-dropping costumes (credit Consolata Boyle) and multiple lovely scenes set in upscale homes and restaurants of 1910s Paris.
The Lady and the Duke (2001)
I’ve raved about this film before, but it really deserves its place at the top of this list. Focusing on an Englishwoman who is experiencing the French Revolution, all of the exterior shots feature the actors digitally inserted into actual period paintings, and it’s AMAZEBALLS. You want a view of what late 18th-century Paris looked like? Drop everything and watch this movie. (Bonus, the costumes and hair are amazing too!)
Which historical films or TV shows have great views of Paris?