Exhibit Review: Paris vu par Hollywood – Paris ponders the role of cinema in its identity

Paris vu par Hollywood exhibition banner, Paris, France, November 2012. Image by Meghan O’Reilly.

Paris vu par Hollywood
l’Hôtel de Ville de Paris
5 rue Lobau

until December 15, 2012

Paris: Is there a city more fetishized by Americans? The city of love, the city of lights, the capital of art, Paris has long captivated even those who’ve never seen it with their own eyes. To whom does France owe this notoriety? Its diplomatic tradition, its art, its literature…and in large part to American cinema.

Indeed France’s rich culture makes its capital a likely target for Hollywood producers, and since the advent of le 7eme art, hundreds of filmmakers have tried to capture the city’s unique allure. A new exposition, Paris vu par Hollywood, at l’Hôtel de Ville de Paris examines the city these filmmakers have portrayed throughout the years: a version of Paris, that has perhaps more to do with the American psyche than with the urban landscape itself.

The exhibition opens with a quote from mayor Bertrand Delanoë, pondering this American fascination. Regardless of its origins, he concludes, it has thankfully resulted in countless occasions for the whole world to “revel” in the city’s beauty.

I don’t disagree with the mayor; Paris is a striking city. Yet the exposition’s premise feels at times a bit patronizing: Paris, a city rich in history, tradition, art, and passion has a special ability to inspire the United States–a country that has none of those things.

But then again, hasn’t Hollywood been patronizing the French since the dawn of cinema? The exhibit ushers us through different eras and thematic depictions of the capital, from silent historical dramas in the early 1900s all the way to contemporary action films (including, to my amusement, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America World Police). Amongst the intriguing memorabilia, photographs, and video clips, we see the same themes emerging time and again: an obsession with the guillotine, a fixation on prostitutes, and a deification of the artist. Paris is simultaneously glorified and demonized; as much a cesspool of hedonism as a circuit of existential liberation; a place just as exotic, barbaric and primitive as it is enlightened, modern and fashionable.

So perhaps it’s only natural that a young, Puritanical country be so enthralled with an ancient, decadent city. Yet just how much of Paris’s reputation was based in reality—and how much was a myth perpetuated by Hollywood studios? As the exhibition cites one 1930s French journalist as saying,

“There’s the ‘Paris Paramount’ and the Paris en France…and the Paris Paramount is certainly the more Parisian!”

Indeed the exhibit emphasizes the absurd amount of effort invested in the constructing this “faux Paris”. Aerial shots of “Culver City”, the part of MGM studios used to film An American in Paris (1952) attest to the scope of the illusion. It was interesting, too, to witness how the city’s image developed after World War II, when more and more filmmakers began to come to Paris to shoot on-site. Tones shifted, idealism waned, but a certain Bohemian dream remained personified by the City of Lights.

The exhibition is rich in enticing artifacts: amongst my favorites were a bill from Mary Pickford’s lunch at the Ritz (she had an omelette), Gene Kelley’s boots from The Three Musketeers (they were enormous!), and several Givenchy costumes worn by Audrey Hepburn (they were somewhat less enormous). Notable as well were striking set and costume designs for an array of films, including Jean Renoir’s Moulin Rouge, and Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.

For those less well-versed in cinema, I would have appreciated a more historical approach. While thought-provoking, the exhibition could have incorporated more context into its arguments, specifically regarding technological, political, and philosophical developments over the course of the 20th century. Nevertheless, I appreciated the collection’s clarity and organization, especially given its large scope. Paris has a separate museum for the cinematic history after all! Ultimately the exhibit is a success, delightful in its ability to both celebrate and critique the nostalgia that clouds our perception of city.

At the end of the exhibit, tourists and Parisians alike lingered at the back of the hall to watch a clip of Gene Kelley and Leslie Caron dancing on the banks of the Seine. The images are so familiar, yet so foreign; entirely fabricated, yet somehow more concrete than the city they represent. I suppose that for any given place, cinema—and art in general for that matter—is the closest one can ever get to seeing “the real thing”. But observing this universal transfixion in front of the projector made me wonder whether the real thing really matters at all.

by Meghan O’Reilly, GLIMPSE journal reviews correspondent, Paris

Paris vu par Hollywood is free at l’Hôtel de Ville de Paris (5 rue Lobau) until December 15, 2012. Open from 10am-7pm, Monday-Saturday. Audio guides available in multiple languages for 5 euros.


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