By Craig Leask
How often have you been in a theatre, watching a movie and been distracted by the exotic beauty of the setting? Oh, we have paid an often hefty admission price for our seat, based upon a strong advertising campaign promising a great storyline, high caliber acting and the allure of promised entertainment. We know we should be paying attention to the dialogue, to the action, or to the unrequited love affair unfolding on the screen. But we find ourselves distracted by that beautiful blue ocean, the historic medieval towns and jaw-dropping mountain vistas. It is then, while parked in that darkened theatre, that our mind begins to wander – “I wonder where that is?” and “I want to go there!” By the time we get back to our homes we are in full vacation mode, determined to add this latest location to our proverbial travel bucket list.
Movies are by design pure escapism. Their locations carefully and meticulously sourced, scouted and secured – chosen after a great investment in research, money and time. So important are these locations that they can make or break a film or the believability of a character. Think the suave and adventurous James Bond. As a man of elegance and adventure, you know he needs to be fighting the good fight in the most elusive, exotic and dangerous corners of the world – it’s who he is. It would be a grave injustice (and most likely the death of the franchise) to invest two hours of your life watching him prowling around the shopping malls and Taco Bells of suburban Cleveland seeking out evil world dominating villains.
Of course there is more to a movie than just a great locale. But, without the CGI, the script and the actors, what you are left with is the location. The location alone has the ability to resonate and make a huge impact upon an audience, more often than not resulting in transforming a beautiful and previously inaccessible place onto a hub of tourist activity. This has been aptly demonstrated again and again. For instance, Maya Bay, Kho Phi Phi Le, the small island off Phuket Thailand, the setting for Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach (2000). The overwhelming success of the film created an unmanageable tourist draw which was literally destroying the very beauty that made the area so attractive in the first place. This resulting popularity has resulted in the government’s need to close the area to tourists indefinitely.
Woody Allen has perfected the art of making a movie’s setting a character in his films. Just watch one of his New York based films: Annie Hall (1977), Radio Days (1987) or Bullets Over Broadway (1994) to appreciate his love affair with his home city. In his more recent films Allen has taken on additional mistresses expressing his love for Barcelona: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008); Rome: To Rome with Love (2012); and Paris: Midnight in Paris (2011).
The James Bond franchise is another in which exotic and beautiful locations are a necessary component of the films – London, Paris, Cuba, Jamaica, Iceland, Venice, Berlin, Geneva, Siena, Cairo and Monaco to name but a very few.
Along with Woody Allen and Bond films, the Harry Potter and Hobbit series could also very easily be the subjects for travelogues, bestowing the beauty of the English and New Zealand country sides where these episodic films were produced.
During this period of “home arrest”, I find myself gravitating to films with great locations, allowing me to travel to exotic and fascinating places in my mind – a poor substitute to a real visit, but in these days of lock down, I’ll take any escape I can get. Keep in mind, I have chosen these movies for their beauty. Some may not be great masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination, but you’ve gotta admit, they are beautiful.
I’m starting our journey in France. This is an easy one as France is so easily recognized that many film plots find a reason to have a scene shot in the country – any reason– think Tom Cruise parachuting onto a famous Parisian rooftop in more than one Mission: Impossible film. Paris doesn’t play into the plot at all. They could have easily chosen Detroit, but they have chosen the City of Lights for the scenes for no other reason than the city is iconic.
My goal here is to share films shot on location which show off a country’s beauty. Films such as An American in Paris (1951), although strongly set in France are not included in the article as the film’s depiction of France is limited to a few feet of stock footage distributed throughout the film. The majority of the film having been shot on purposely constructed soundstages and back lots at MGM.
Below are my selections for some of the movies which each show a different perspective of France, organized by release date.
To Catch a Thief (1955)
To Catch a Thief was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and, although many interior scenes were filmed on Paramount’s Hollywood Studio soundstages, carefully selected filming locations across the South East of France: Nice, Monaco and Cannes were utilized to add the required intrigue and elegance to the storyline. The plot follows reformed jewel thief/cat burglar John Robie (Carry Grant) who is being framed by a copycat burglar working near his villa in Nice. The very wealthy and feisty Francie (Grace Kelly), her tenacious mother (Jessie Royce Landis) and Lloyds of London insurance agent H.H. Hughson (John Williams) round out the cast.
The film is an elegant movie, made glamorous due to Hitchcock’s use of the awe-inspiring surroundings to their full advantage – be it the simple escape by car from Robie’s villa (335 Route de Saint-Jeannet, St Jeannet) throughout the mountainous Nice countryside, Le Vieux Port; the yacht filled main harbour of Cannes; the crowded beaches that line the promenade La Croisette and the famous Hotel Carlton hotel and the epic ‘Sanford Villa’ (Castle of la Croix des Gardes, 145 Boulevard Leader), the setting for the sensational and climactic masquerade ball.
Ironically, on September 14, 1982, Grace Kelly was killed when her car went off the Moyenne Corniche, the road where her famous chase scene was filmed for the movie following the nearby picnic at 1009 D53, Beausoleil, Alpes-Maritimes.
Amélie is a quirky film about a reserved waitress, Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) who, while dealing with her own isolation, decides to positively change the lives of those around her. Amélie works at the idealistic Parisian Café des Deux Moulins in Montmartre and experiences life through an assortment of eccentrics who frequent the café, as well as several of her peculiar neighbors on Rue des Trois-Frères.
The change in Amélie’s world begins with the discovery of an old metal box containing childhood memories, hidden behind a dislodged wall tile in her apartment. Amélie immediately resolves to track down the owner and return the box, promising she will devote her life to bringing happiness to others, should the returned box bring joy to its original owner. Amélie does locate the box’s owner, returning it to him anonymously. From a distance she witnesses the effects the memory box has on the owner and how this moment led to the reconnection with his estranged daughter and grandson. This ignites a spark within Amélie leading her to seek out more opportunities to bring happiness (and sometimes light vengeance) to her fellow Parisiennes. This becomes the ideal vehicle to film throughout Paris as Amélie secretly executes intricate schemes enhancing the lives of those around her as she fulfills her new destiny.
The attractiveness of a film like Amélie is the beauty director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has realistically captured in a simple and ordinary life. The viewer is seeing Paris from the perspective of someone who lives there and truly enjoys the simple pleasures of life. You can see yourself starting your day as she does, walking down the charming and lively Rue Lepic, stopping for your morning café noisette and crème brulée at the junction of Rue Lepic and Rue Cauchois as you people watch from your sidewalk café table. The simple joys of skimming stones on the Canal Saint-Martin; climbing the Grand escalier de Montmartre to the basilique du Sacré-Cœur and walking across the Pont des Arts, to the Louvre as part of your everyday life. The ending is a simple narration by Jacques Thébault, who encourages the audience to observe the miraculous details of life that occur every moment.
Before Sunset (2004)
Before Sunset is the sequel to Before Sunrise (1995) the film about a fortuitous night in Vienna nine years prior, and prequel to the later Before Midnight (2013), the trilogy’s conclusion set in Greece. The film is the continuance of a contemporary romance full of missed encounters and opportunities, deep revealing conversations and, best of all, set in the most romantic and beautiful locations throughout Paris.
The premise involves the unplanned reconnection of two individuals who had crossed paths and a shared connection some nine years prior in Vienna. Before departing, each had vowed to reconnect for a proper date six months later – a meeting which for reasons explained by both never occurred. Jump ahead some nine years. Celine (Julie Delpy) has a photojournalist boyfriend and now resides in Paris and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is a married father of one and a bestselling American author. He is in Paris promoting “This Time”, his latest book inspired by those few charmed hours spent with Celine nine years prior.
Celine appears at Jesse’s book signing, being held in the “Shakespeare and Company” bookstore on Paris’s Left Bank (famous for having been frequented by Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce). They quickly greet and, as Jesse has a limited amount of time before catching his flight to continue on his scheduled tour, asks Celine to spend the short period with him. As in the prequel Before Sunrise, the characters again making the best of what little time they have together.
The beauty of a film like Before Sunset is the freedom Director Richard Linklater exercised in utilizing the most romantic and spectacular locations of Paris for the lead’s impromptu reunion. Filmed entirely in Paris, Linklater has the pair wander through many of the charming streets throughout the Marais district, the raised garden walk of the Promenade Plantée park, stop for lunch at Le Pure Café, 14 Rue Jean-Macé, even a scenic Bateau Mouche boat cruise along the Seine river, landing on the Left Bank near Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral.
I know what you are thinking – how can I include an animated film in an article which I prefaced by stating outright that I was only including films shot on location and not those produced on studio back lots. Well, Ratatouille is entirely animated and somewhat of an anomaly. As the first picture released by Pixar Animation Studios following its purchase by Walt Disney Pictures, the producers wanted to make sure they got this one right. Although animated, writer and director Brad Bird (2004’s The Incredibles) was passionate that the atmosphere in Ratatouille be authentic. It was imperative that the film contain a romantic, lush and realistic vision of Paris, which is a significant deviation from the look and feel of previous Pixar films. To accomplish this authenticity director Brad Bird, producer Brad Lewis and several animators spent a week in Paris, fully engulfed in the ambiance, environment and atmosphere of the city to ensure legitimacy in their animation. While there, they even took their meals at Paris’s top restaurants to witness firsthand back of house operations, food presentation and the proper serving of French cuisine.
The title Ratatouille is more than a comical reference to the species of the lead character, a doe eyed rat by the name of Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt). A Rat with a near-expert level of knowledge and skill in the preparation of French cuisine. The title also refers to a French Provençal stewed vegetable dish originally created in Nice, a dish Remy eventually makes with his human companion Linguini (Lou Romano).
Ratatouille was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Original Screenplay, winning for Best Animated Feature. Additionally, the film was voted in a poll of international critics conducted by the BBC as one of the 100 greatest motion pictures of the 21st century, an unheard-of accolade for an animated feature.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
Midnight in Paris is a classic Woody Allen comedy set in Paris, complete with great locations, actors and an amazing vintage score. Simply put, the film is a time-traveling fantasy set in the most perfect locations and atmospheres as only Allen can do. The film opens with a three and a half -minute montage of Paris, perfectly set to Sidney Bechet’s composition “Tu Vois Ma Mère“ beautifully arranged by Orquesta Brazofuerte.
The plot follows the odyssey of screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) on his nightly visits to 1920’s Paris. These time travelling visits initially begin after an evening of wine tasting with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her wealthy, but judgmental parents John and Hellen (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). That evening, Gil decides to walk on his own back to the Hôtel Le Bristol (112 Faubourg Saint-Honoré), where the family have rooms. Reaching the Church of Saint Etienne du Mont at the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, Gil becomes disoriented and, as the clock strikes midnight, is rescued by a group of costumed revelers in a 1928 Peugeot, Type 184 Landaulet. With this new group of acquaintances, Gil is transported back to the 1920’s, the era he admires and idolizes in the novel he is writing. Thus, begins a series of late-night escapades to the past where Gil parties and has deep conversations with his artistic heroes including: Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland), Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo ), Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates).
The film ends with Gil walking along the Seine, where he runs into Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), a local antiques dealer he had met earlier in his trip. The two talk then slowly walk across Pont Neuf as it starts to rain.
Midnight in Paris was filmed entirely in Paris and at the Palace of Versailles. Recognizable locations include Notre Dame Cathedral, the Opéra, Montmartre, Sacré-Cœur, the Île de la Cité, the Panthéon, the Rodin exhibit at Musée de l’Orangerie in the Jardin des Tuileries and the Musée Rodin, among many others.
Midnight in Paris was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning the Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Original Screenplay.
Honorable Mention: There are a great many more films which bestow the virtues of France, equally and sometimes better than the ones I have included above – but in limiting my writing to five, I feel the need to include the following who also deserve to be on this list:
- The Red Balloon (1956) written and directed by Albert Lamorisse an award winning short (the Grand Prize at Cannes) about a small boy who befriends a big red balloon, which follows him around his Parisian neighborhood.
- Breathless (1960) directed by Jean-Luc Godard, starring Jean Seberg, Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Paul Belmondo, an early French New Wave styled film follows the pursuit of a young criminal throughout France.
- Charade (1963) directed by Stanley Donen, starring Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Walter Matthau – the wife of a murdered man evades the police who are searching for a fortune in stolen money.
- French Kiss (1995) directed by Lawrence Kasdan, starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline, follows the exploits of a woman who follows her fiancé to France, inadvertently involving herself in jewel smuggling along the way.
- The Da Vinci Code (2006) directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, follows clues in Da Vinci paintings and buildings throughout France to solve a religious mystery.
- Paris Je T’aime (2006) a collection of 18 films about Paris produced by 20 directors who each inject their own stories into the city of light.
- Julie & Julia (2009) written and directed by Nora Ephron, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams which, through flashbacks, details Julia Child’s experiences while living in Paris.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.