Famous French Monuments in Film
There are so many monuments in Paris that avoiding them while filming might be more of a challenge than including one in a scene. Of course, monuments in Paris are often intentionally included in films by directors who wish to situate the action of the story they are telling, giving audiences visual cues that place the narrative in Paris, which is rich in history and commemorative references. The panoramic shots, close-ups, and views of the interiors of monuments all contribute to the mood of a film, whether this be quirky, burlesque, pensive, frightening, or majestic. Here are five monuments that have done just that:
5 Famous French Monuments in Film
#1 Sacré Cœur in Amélie
Located on the summit of Montmartre, Sacré Cœur is a basilica that was completed in 1914. It is a landmark in a neighborhood renowned for housing artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir in the early 20th century. Its spectacular dome gives panoramic views of the city, if you are willing to hike up 237 steps on a spiral staircase to get there. At 83 meters high, atop the butte de Montmartre, it was the highest point in the city of Paris before the construction of the Eiffel Tower. Since Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film, Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain takes place in Montmartre, the appearance of Sacré Cœur in the film seems inevitable. Its dome rises impressively behind a carousel in the square Louise-Michel in a scene from the film that suggests the intrigue of a roman policier. The scene shows the lead character, Amélie donning a pair of dark sunglasses and a scarf tied around her head, following a M. Quincampoix incognito. This is part of Amélie’s effort to return a lost photo album to M. Quincampoix, which she finally does in another scene in which Sacré Cœur appears.
#2 Palais Garnier in The Phantom of the Opera and Play Serious
The Palais Garnier was inaugurated in 1875 and hosts the Paris Opera Ballet, the oldest national ballet company in the world. An example of Second Empire architecture, its ornate façade and baroque designs are matched by a gilded interior, red velvet seating in the main auditorium, and sumptuous chandelier, which is depicted falling onto audience members in Rupert Julian’s film, The Phantom of the Opera, released in 1925. Recreated in Hollywood as a soundstage at Universal Studios, the Palais Garnier required construction of a set involving steel girders set in concrete to support the thousands of extras that were required for the film. Construction was so massive that the soundstage remained intact and was used for many other productions until 2014, when it was dismantled. Another film in which the Palais Garnier plays a central role is T.M. Rives’ 2018 Play Serious, which documents the choreographer Alexander Ekman’s work Play, staged on the Paris Opera Ballet. Filmed onsite and showing the rehearsal process as well as clips of performances, the film illustrates Ekman’s process of choreographing a piece inspired by the spontaneity, lightheartedness, and creativity of children’s play. The stage is one of the largest in the world, able to fit 450 people, which was ample space to accommodate the 40,000 green plastic balls used in Play’s sets.
#3 Le Louvre in Wonder Woman and Apes**t
The Louvre, constructed over many centuries, includes architecture that ranges from its 13th century dungeon to its 20th century pyramid, past which Wonder Woman walks in the opening sequence of Patty Jenkins’ 2017 origin story of this superhero. Located in Paris’ 1er arrondissement, the Louvre gives us the first point of human contact in the film, whose opening shots show a peaceful planet Earth floating in the galaxy before zooming in to a satellite view of the city of Paris. The palais du Louvre is the workplace of Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s alias, who receives a well-protected artifact that is delivered to the museum. The Louvre indeed houses over half a million works of art, including the famous La Joconde, a.k.a. the Mona Lisa, which is featured in Beyoncé and JayZ’s music video Apes**t, released in 2018. The couple assume postures in front of da Vinci’s iconic painting that reflect the subject’s poised demeanor, and go on to sing, dance, and rap in response to various works of art located in the Denon wing, although JayZ mainly poses for the camera. Beyoncé’s dancers, on the other hand, perform moves that are synchronized, contrasting, or sequential, including what appears to be a pilates sequence on the Daru steps of the Denon wing. At the top, Beyoncé’s gestures reflect that of the Victoire de Samothrace statue, complete with flowing robes that drape over her sculpted figure. The same year as the release of this video, attendance at the Louvre reached an all-time high of 10.2 million visitors. Do you think this was a coincidence?
#4 La tour Eiffel in Sex and the City and Zazie dans le métro
La tour Eiffel is France’s quintessential symbol, inaugurated in 1889 for the Exposition Universelle. Rising 324 meters high, its summit is the loftiest point in the city of Paris. Lest you forget its presence, its 20,000 light bulbs sparkle every hour on the hour from nightfall until sunrise. In the HBO television series, Sex and the City, which ran from 1998 to 2004, Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend’s daughter Chloé refers to the light show as hideous, but Carrie herself seems thrilled to be able to see the Eiffel Tower from the balcony of her hotel room at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée. In contrast to such panoramic shots of the Eiffel Tower, Louis Malle gives us interior shots of an Eiffel Tower elevator in his 1960 film Zazie dans le métro. This film, based on Raymond Queneau’s 1959 novel of the same name, brought us precocious ten-year-old Zazie, visiting from Provence, who zips through the streets of Paris, determined to experience a metro ride. This burlesque representation of Paris includes the title character ending up in a chaotic crowd of people in the close quarters of one of the Eiffel Tower’s elevators.
#5 La statue Écoute in La Haine
La statue Écoute, created by Henri de Miller in 1986, is located in the jardin des Halles, near the Église Saint-Eustache. Consisting of a massive human head cradled by a hand, it is made of sandstone and was commissioned by the forum des Halles, a commercial center with boutiques, restaurants, cinemas, and the Vidéothèque de Paris, where I probably first saw the film La Haine. The statue appears in a scene of this film that shows three young men from a quartier populaire of one of Paris’ banlieues who arrive in Paris on the RER train, which stops close by. This 1995 film, directed by Matthieu Kassovitz, illustrates a day in the life of these young men in the aftermath of an incident involving police brutality that has landed one of their friends in the hospital. Reflecting France’s social scene at that time, which includes the jardin des Halles as a scene of rough encounters, the statue lends symbolic weight to a cinematic work that gives us a documentary feel through its use of black and white film and its segmentation of time by frequent references to the hours indicated on the face of a clock. Aside from directing an award-winning film, Kassovitz appears as M. Quincampoix in the film Amélie, itself a winner of many awards.
These monuments, and many others, appear in films not only as part of a French backdrop, but as structures that give shape to a narrative, contributing to its themes and forms, and adding texture to its images. Their appearance onscreen shows the way in which people at a given time and place relate to these commemorative structures, illustrating the continuity between a city, its history, and the moment at which the action of a given narrative takes place.
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