|France in American film, America in French film|
|The two countries most associated with the birth of cinema are France and the United States.|
|The American Library in Paris | Grant Rosenberg|
Though there were inventions and inventors along the way from Germany and Britain with their variations on film projection, it was Thomas Edison in the U.S. and the Lumières brothers in France who established the building blocks for what has come to be the film industry. The first projection of a film for a paying public was in Paris on December 28th, 1895 in the Grand Café, next to the Opéra Garnier.
The industries in Paris and Hollywood continued apace over the decades that followed, as fictional films became a major pastime and France and French culture a major subject for American movies. In the teens and twenties, Hollywood produced countless silent films on its back lots based on French classic books and history. J. Gordon Edwards, many of whose 54 films have no surviving copies, took on adaptations of books such as Alexandre Dumas fils’s La Dame aux Camélias (for his 1917 film Camille), and the same year also made not only the film Madame du Barry, based on two novels by Dumas père father, about the famous mistress of King Louis XV, but also The Darling of Paris, based on Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris. Frank Lloyd made a film of the Hugo novel Les Miserables the following year. This period featured a cluster of remakes as well—only three years later there was another version of Camille, this time starring Rudolph Valentino.
As time and technology advanced and the studios’ film budgets grew, American films about France began to shoot on location in the country, particularly after World War II. Some films, even iconic ones like Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951)and Gigi (1958) and Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce (1963), only included a few exterior shots in France. Others, such as Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963) and Otto Preminger’s 1958 adaptation of the landmark Françoise Sagan book Bonjour Tristesse, were largely or entirely filmed on location, while featuring mostly or exclusively English dialogue.
Some American writers or studios have set films in France as a way to explore issues that were possibly controversial in the U.S. One example is Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues (1961), with Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier. Set in the Paris jazz scene made popular after World War II, it explores how African-American musicians flocked to Paris, where they could flourish in music without the bitter racism they faced in the U.S. at the time. The film, in addition to its two marquee stars, also featured Joanne Woodward, Dianne Carroll and Louis Armstrong, and was shot entirely in Paris.
Films like Last Tango in Paris, made by Italian Bernardo Bertolucci and starring Marlon Brando, contributed to the arthouse image of Paris as more than just a postcard vision of romance, but more in keeping with the atmosphere created by cineastes like Jean-Pierre Melville and other filmmakers’ visions of a brooding, at times desolate city. The infamous mostly-English-language film, rated X upon its release in 1972, has no shots of any famous landmarks (indeed, most of the film takes place in Passy, within walking distance of a deliberately never-shown Eiffel Tower).
Sophia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, shot in English, was the first film to have extensive access to the interior of the Palace of Versailles. (A 1938 film of the same name was given partial access to the grounds). Coppola’s film, with Kirsten Dunst in the title role, uses contemporary pop music on its soundtrack and a decidedly modern sensibility despite the period surroundings.
In recent years American films have continued the tradition of presenting France as a romantic, exotic place in thrillers (such as The Bourne Identity) or idyllic tourist attraction. Lawrence Kasdan’s French Kiss and Billy Crystal’s Forget Paris (both 1995) present an American tourist’s vision of the French capital, and Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia (2009), which partially recounts cooking personality Julia Child’s experience in post-war Paris, was shot in the city and presents both the city and its cuisine exquisitely.
While an increasing number of French actors (Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel, Mathieu Amalric and Mathieu Kassovitz) are finding fortune in Hollywood like the Maurice Chevaliers, Charles Boyers and Leslie Carons of yesteryear, French films set in the U.S. are rare. Some French filmmakers, usually genre directors, make American films for American studios, but they are films in English. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, for example, in between his singular, very stylistic French films like Delicatessen and Amelie, made a fourth film in the Alien franchise. Luc Besson, a filmmaker and producer often scorned as “too American” by French critics for his Hollywood-style action films, has made several successful English-language blockbusters like The Professional and The Fifth Element. He is presently overseeing the construction of a full studio in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, which will be France’s first large-scale studio with soundstages and back lots. The lack of these facilities until now has restricted the possibilities for French filmmakers wanting to make films that necessitate elaborately-built sets of American locales.
However, there are examples: Chicago has served as the location for two French films—Just Visiting, a sequel to the popular Les Visiteurs series about time-traveling Gauls, starring Christian Clavier and Jean Reno, and Crime Spree, a caper movie starring major French figures Gerard Depardieu and singers Johnny Hallyday and Renaud, as well as Harvey Keitel.
The 2009 film Lucky Luke, from the immensely popular French comic book series, features Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid and other assorted American-style cowboys. However, it was filmed in Argentina. Americans might find it strange, sitting down for a Western with all its tropes and familiar imagery, to see legendary American outlaws in a saloon conversing in French.
Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline in the movie French Kiss
Merryl Streep going to the market in the movie Julie and Julia