August 01, 2014

French Friday: Au cinéma

Last weekend, Magic in the Moonlight, a new film set on the French Riviera in the 1920s, debuted in select cities around the country. Although it isn't playing in the Milwaukee area yet and it has received mixed reviews, I am eager to see any film with a French backdrop, "Gastby-esque" scenes, and Colin Firth (I've been a fan since his Mr. Darcy days). In anticipation of this new movie, here's a list of my top 10 favorite French and American films that take place en France. (Click on the titles to view the movie trailers.)

1. Amélie (Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulin) (2001): I love this quirky film about a naïve Parisienne who is so busy meddling in others' lives that she almost misses out on her own destiny. Audrey Tautou is awkwardly adorable. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's angles and colors are almost reminiscent of a cartoon and the music by Yann Tiersen has become iconic. The scenes shot all around Montmartre make me yearn to return to Paris.

2. Midnight in Paris (2011) - I'm generally not a Woody Allen fan and Rachel McAdams is so annoying in this film; neverthless, I really love this movie! Owen Wilson plays a struggling writer who is mysteriously transported to Paris in the 1920s where he associates with his (and my) literary and artistic heroes (Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Cole and Linda Porter, Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Man Ray...). The film curiously explores the notion of "Golden Age Thinking." What era would you like to visit if you could slide through time at the stroke of midnight? Like Gil, I would always choose Paris in the 1920s.

3. Funny Face (1957) - My favorite actress, Audrey Hepburn, plays Jo Stockton, a Greenwich Village book shop clerk, whose beautiful yet intellectual look lands her a modeling job in Paris. Despite Jo's belief that modeling is "chichi and an unrealistic approach to self-impressions as well as economics," she accepts the offer to go to Paris if only to associate with her idol, Professor Flostre, founder of empathecialism (a funny, beatnik-era philosophy). Call me girly, but I love the make-over scenes and photo shoots, especially the scene in the Louvre with Audrey Hepburn juxtaposed against the Nike of Samothrace. I don't know which is more beautiful and graceful, the Winged Victory or Audrey, floating down the stairs in her red Givenchy gown! And don't you just love her dance moves, especially remixed to AC/DC's Back in Black for the 2007 Gap skinny black pants commercial?

4. French Kiss (1995) - Meg Ryan plays a timid American who reluctantly travels to Paris (reluctantly?) to win back her cheating fiancé. She unwittingly gets involved with a petty thief turned jewel smuggler, played brilliantly by Kevin Kline, following him from Paris to Cannes and finally, to a vineyard in Provence. The scenery is breathtaking and the soundtrack is fantastic.

5. Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) -  Jean-Paul Rappeneau's dazzling film adaptation of Edmond Rostand's play is a fictionalized account of Hercule-Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, a talented soldier, a remarkable duelist, and a gifted poet. It is the story of love and war, of physical versus inner beauty as Cyrano's remarkable talent is tragically overshadowed by his unfortunate physical appearance -- namely his ridiculously large nose. Cyrano is in love with the beautiful and intellectual Roxane (OK, I'll wait...You know you want to sing it: "Roxxxxane, you don't have to put on the red light..."), but alas, she is infatuated with the devastatingly handsome Christian. Despite his disappointment, Cyrano promises to protect his young rival. Upon discovering that Christian is as ineloquent as he is handsome, Cyrano also serves as ghost writer of the most romantic letters that Christian, in turn, uses to woo Roxane. The entire play is written in Alexandrine verse (rhyming couplets of twelve syllables). The 1990 film is particularly extraordinary since even the English subtitles, written by Anthony Burgess (author of A Clockwork Orange), maintain the original poetic form. France's renowned and often controversial actor, Gérard Dépardieu, won a César for his portrayal of Cyrano, and he was also nominated for a best actor Oscar, a rare honor for a non-English speaking role.

6. Chocolat (2000) - Small-town France in 1960, decadent chocolate confections, and Johnny Depp... need I say more? IMDB Plot synopsis: "Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter are drifters who are met with skepticism and resistance when they move to a conservative town in rural France and open a chocolate shop during Lent. As Vianne begins to work her magic and help those around her, the townspeople are soon won-over by her exuberance and her delicious chocolates - except for the mayor, who is determined to shut her down. When a group of river drifters [enter Johnny Depp!] visit the town, Vianne teaches the townspeople something about acceptance, and finds love for herself along the way."

7. Les Misérables (2012) - Poignant, heartbreaking, breathtaking, simply magnifique! To be fair, I'm a big Les Mis fan. I first discovered the original French concept album by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg when I was in graduate school. For weeks, I hummed  "J'avais Revé d'une autre vie" and "A la volonté du peuple" as I struggled through the five volumes (365 chapters, 1900 pages in French) of Victor Hugo's 19th century novel. I couldn't image how anyone could even conceive of transforming this "wretched" saga into a musical! However, when I saw the show on Broadway in 1990, I was immediately convinced of its brilliance. Tom Hooper, director of The King's Speech (another fantastic film), transformed the spartan stage props of the musical into vivid images of nineteenth century France. Hugh Jackman is a brilliant Jean Valjean struggling with his instinct to survive in a hostile society while finding the strength to transform his miserable existence. I was pleasantly surprised to see Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Jean Valjean in the West End and on Broadway, as the bishop in the film. If you haven't seen the PBS 25th Anniversary Les Misérables Concert, do - it's wonderful! Hooper's decision to film the singing live, rather than prerecording the songs and having the actors lip sync, is especially powerful. The performances Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) and Anne Hathaway are brilliant; I always cry as Fantine (Hathaway) sings "I Dreamed A Dream". Thank goodness for the comic relief of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the ridiculous Thénardiers, or I would be a wreck for over two and a half hours. Still, I'm always again sobbing by the Epilogue when Jean Valjean sings, "To love another person is to see the face of God!" (my favorite line) and the dead (Fantine, Eponine, Gavroche, et al.) begin the reprise of "Do You Hear the People Sing".

8. A Good Year (2006) - Maybe it's because was in Wine Country, but I just rewatched this visually gorgeous movie. Russell Crowe plays an English investment broker who inherits his uncle's château and vineyards in Provence. While renovating the château to sell it, Max reminisces about his idyllic childhood there, rediscovering his affinity a more laid-back lifestyle, the lovely Provençal vistas, the delicious wine, and a young Marion Cotillard.

9. Coco Avant Chanel (2009) - Coco Before Chanel is biopic of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's life before she found fame as the legendary couturière. Although the film depicts Chanel's inspiration for the iconic little black dress, Chanel suit, and sportswear for women, the focus is on Coco as a person, and her relationships with two men who supported her both financially and romantically. Audrey Tautou gracefully portrays Chanel's fierce independence and rebellion juxtaposed against her vulnerability and ultimately elegant style. Scenes in gritty turn-of-the-century Paris, in a Normandy château, and on the beaches of WWI-era Deauville are even more beautiful than Chanel's gorgeous couture which finally make a brief appearance in the closing sequence at 31 rue Cambon.

10. Marie Antoinette (2006) - OK, the acting is terrible (Kirsten Dunst - yikes!), who can resist a scene where ladies try on shoes while sipping champagne and nibbling macarons?! We all know about the young queens ultimate demise, so the plot really isn't the attraction of this movie. Filmed entirely at Versailles, we virtually eat, drink, and party with the pre-revolutionary royals in the palace, the Petit and Grand Trianons, and (my favorite) Petit Hameau. It's pure, unapologetic eye candy...and speaking of candy, director Sofia Coppola's music choices are surprising and provocative (including Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy").
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What are your favorite films set in La Belle France?