The 50 best films set in Paris: 1970-1993

By the early 70s, the experimental fervour of the New Wave had subsided, and French cinema gradually relaxed into a more conservative mode that favoured safe...

'Les Amants du Pont-Neuf' (1991)
By the early 70s, the experimental fervour of the New Wave had subsided, and French cinema gradually relaxed into a more conservative mode that favoured safe genre pictures and adaptations of literary classics over subversive independent filmmaking. The various crime sub-genres that had sprouted in the 50s proved especially durable; they turned Paris into a chic image of the urban jungles of American film noir, and inspired the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci and Roman Polanski to set some of their darkest films in the city.

In the 80s, this tendency toward sleek aestheticism – or ‘style over substance’, according to its detractors – led to the ‘Cinema du Look’ movement exemplified by the likes of Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax. In their films, Paris becomes a maze of shiny surfaces, sun-dappled sidewalks and seductive shadows.

The Red Circle (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)

Melville's special achievement was to relocate the American gangster film in France, and to incorporate his own steely poetic and philosophical obsessions. He described this, his penultimate film, as a digest of the nineteen definitive underworld set-ups that could be found in John Huston's picture of doomed gangsters, The Asphalt Jungle. Darker, more abstract and desolate than his earlier work, this shows, set piece by set piece, the breakdown of...

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Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)

The Francis Bacon paintings that haunt the opening credits are the first hint that life might be both tortuous and beautiful in Bertolucci’s unforgettable portrait of grief and anonymous sex in 1970s Paris. The city looks to have been built uniquely for the occasion as Brando – then 48, with shoulder-length greying hair and still so striking – gives his best performance in years as Paul, an American mourning his wife’s suicide. He finds solace in the bed of...

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Love in the Afternoon (Eric Rohmer, 1972)

The last of Rohmer's Six Moral Tales sees its hero married - in contrast to the protagonists of the earlier films, who were merely contemplating marriage - and resisting the temptation of an affair, almost out of perversity. Equally, the film is a homage to the late afternoon - seen by Rohmer as a sunny parallel to 3am and the dark night of the soul - the time Bernard Verley eccentrically chooses as his regular lunch time. A formal, elegant examination of...

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The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache, 1973)

Three-and-a-half hours of people talking about sex sounds like a recipe for boredom; in Eustache's hands, it is anything but. There is no 'explicitness': the film is about attitudes to, and defences against, sex and the body. Using dialogue garnered entirely from real-life conversations and sticking entirely to a prepared script (no improvisation), Eustache has provided us with a ruthlessly sharp-eyed view of chic, supposedly liberated sexual...

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Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974)

They meet, like Alice and the White Rabbit, in a sun-dappled French park, amateur illusionist Celine (Juliet Berto) bounding heedlessly past studious librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier). One dropped scarf and a lengthy foot-chase later, these two effusive ladies with catlike curiosity are practically inseparable — so much so that they can try on each other’s identities like best friends swapping favourite apparel. Celine is Julie, Julie is Celine...

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Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1982)

Marvellous amalgam of sadistic thriller and fairytale romance, drawing on a wild diversity of genres from film noir to Feuillade serial. The deliriously offhand plot, cheekily parodying Watergates and French Connections, has switched tapes setting a pair of psychopathic hoods on the trail of a young postal messenger, turning his obsessive dream - of romance with a beautiful black opera singer whose performance on stage he has secretly recorded...

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To Our Loves (Maurice Pialat, 1983)

15-year-old Suzanne (Bonnaire) seems unable to progress beyond a rather doleful promiscuity in her relations with boys. Alone of her family, her father (played by Pialat himself) understands her, but when he leaves home for another woman, family life erupts into a round of appalling, casual violence, until Suzanne escapes into a fast marriage, and finally to America. Pialat's methods of close, intimate filming may place him close...

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Frantic (Roman Polanski, 1988)

Polanski's thriller boasts several superb set pieces, even if it doesn't quite snap shut on the mind the way Chinatown did. Dr Walker (Ford) checks into a Paris hotel with his wife (Buckley) to attend a conference. She has collected the wrong suitcase at the airport, their problems escalate, and to watch how Polanski calibrates the build-up of disquiet in a standard hotel suite until the wife disappears is deeply satisfying...

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Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (Leos Carax, 1991)

Following a spell in a hostel for the homeless after he is injured by a hit-and-run driver, fire-eater Alex (Lavant) returns to his open-air home on Paris's oldest bridge. There, besides his drugs supplier Hans (Gruber), he finds a new tenant: Michèle (Binoche), a middle-class art student who has taken to the streets for as long as her failing sight holds. Tentatively, Alex and Michèle embark on a drunken, anarchic, mutually healing affair...

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Three Colours: Blue (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993)

Failing to find the courage to commit suicide after her husband and infant daughter die in a car crash, Julie (Binoche) decides to build a new, anonymous and wholly independent life. Leaving her country mansion for a Paris apartment, she soon finds that freedom is not as easy to achieve as she hoped. Neighbours seek help and friendship, and doubts about her husband's fidelity inflame jealousy. Most troubling there's the music...

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