No matter where in the world you’re from originally, Paris probably tops your list of must-visit-at-least-once destinations. The City of Light welcomed more than 25 million people annually before the pandemic halted travel, according to the city’s tourism department. Movies and TV shows that take place in Paris and celebrate its architecture, music, artwork, fashion, and museums, reflect the city’s iconic stature. That means that even in times when international travel is restricted or prohibited, there’s still plenty of Parisian culture to soak in.
Some big and small screen depictions are accurate, others lean on cliche. All are worth a watch if you’re missing Paris. These are the best movies and shows to add to your viewing list, according to travel industry professionals and locals.
1. Cleo from 5 to 7
Released in 1962, Cleo from 5 to 7 is a classic French film about a woman waiting on cancer test results.
“It’s considered an early masterpiece of French New Wave cinema, alongside Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows,” says Courtney Traub, editor of Paris Unlocked. “It follows a young aspiring singer, Cléo, as she goes through the motions of a typical day in Paris, from a hat shop to her apartment, the streets of Montparnasse to a city park. Without wishing to spoil the plot, what starts out as a seemingly lighthearted portrait of a young woman with ‘diva-ish’ tendencies quickly transforms into a poignant meditation on mortality, personal fragility and human connection. Plus, the footage of Paris is haunting and beautiful.”
The movie touches on some cliches — Cleo seems to embody the superficial and self-indulgent Parisian “gamine,” Traub says, and there’s plenty of cafe scenes of people smoking — yet there’s depth to the film that makes it personable.
“Having lived in Paris for a long time, the film also struck me for its lush realism,” Traub says. “It’s a real love letter to the city, showing its diverse textures and complexity rather than portraying it in caricatural terms. I’m not even sure there’s a shot of the Eiffel Tower (though I may be misremembering). It doesn’t use the city as a prop, in other words. It’s really a co-starring character.”
Where to watch: HBO Max
2. Midnight in Paris
For Americans, few films are as synonymous with Paris as the 2011 movie Midnight in Paris. The romantic comedy follows a screenwriter played by Owen Wilson as he travels back in time to meet famous writers from history who decamped to the city in the 1920s, like Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein.
“I watched Midnight in Paris before traveling there myself,” says Will Hatton, founder of the travel blog The Broke Backpacker. “I found it brilliant, especially when it comes to the history aspect of not only the city but the American culture and how much more elegant it was in the past.”
Midnight in Paris shows a city that’s perfect for walking in all weather — something that’s just as true in real life, says Laurence Norah, the travel blogger and photographer behind Finding the Universe. It also avoids the (often untrue) rude Parisian stereotype. “It was obviously created by someone who loves Paris, and it shows off the city without overtly romanticizing it,” Norah says. “It just makes you want to visit Paris and explore.”
However, it should be noted that not everyone is a fan. Karen Reb Rudel, who owns the walking tour company Sight Seekers Delight, says the city only matches the romance depicted in Midnight in Paris “if you have a lover or a partner who is romantic.” Traub adds that, while the movie is entertaining, it gives the impression of an all white city where everyone lives a glamorous life of wealth and comfort centered around touristy locations.
Jenna Lang, account executive at the travel-focused PR company Decker/Royal, put it best: “Definitely a bit of a cliche, but the best kind.”
Where to watch: Amazon, YouTube, Vudu
3. Dix Pour Cent (or, Call My Agent)
Dix Pour Cent, which runs under the English title Call My Agent, is a comedy about talent agents who are making it work in the French film industry.
“It manages to capture the true Parisian spirit, craziness and just irreverence of the capital,” says Sabrina Scholkowski, a podcast coach, host, and agency owner who has lived in Paris for eight years. Dix Pour Cent “really shows the true nature of Parisians, it doesn’t shy away from showing how they can be sometimes rude, cold, interested in image, very free spirited when it comes to sex and relationships, and paints an accurate picture of Parisians, especially the apartments and places it shows.”
Where to watch: Netflix
4. Paris, je t’aime (Paris, I Love You)
Paris is known for its romance, and that reputation is highlighted in this film, a collection of vignettes made by multiple filmmakers. It stars Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Willem Dafoe, and Steve Buscemi.
“This movie is based on an array of classical literary works that portray Paris through the eyes of lovers and takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions while also showing different sides of Paris, including many that I’ve personally explored,” says Kevin Mercier, the Paris-based founder of the travel blog Kevmrc. “Furthermore, this movie shows us the diversity of Paris by introducing us to relatable characters of all backgrounds.”
There is just one cliche in the movie, Mercier says, but it doesn’t have to do with the French. “The one cliche depicted in the movie was the introduction of an American character who is in stereotypical fashion depicted as overweight and annoying,” Mercier says.
Where you can watch: YouTube
Amélie (which also goes by the longer title “Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain”) is a romantic comedy directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and starring Audrey Tautou as the titular character. At the center of the movie is a woman who’s goal in life is to make people happy — an emotion that you’ll feel as well when you watch it. Amélie was shot in Paris and released in 2001 to immediate acclaim, and is still well loved today.
“It depicts Parisians the way they are, with their qualities and faults,” Fils says. “In the movie, Paris is not too idealized nor too gloomy. You don’t see Parisians with a beret playing accordion in the street, going to the bakery to buy a baguette. It shows Paris how it really is.”
Where you can watch: Amazon
6. Alice in Paris
In Alice in Paris, the woman at the center of the show is searching the city for the best food. It’s been described by some as what would happen if you turned Amélie into a food-focused travel show.
The quirky series “follows a very loose fictional plot line while taking you around some of the city’s most incredible eateries, from bakeries to soup stations, and of course fine-dining,” says Viviane d’Adesky, a travel expert and the president of Plume Creative Consulting who has written for Matador. “The show has a child-like ease to it, beautiful cinematography and still manages to spotlight the history and noteworthy accomplishments of many Parisian chefs. It’s the antithesis to Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown but equally as entertaining and wanderlust inducing.”
Though the show is fiction, it features real restaurants. The producers even made a map of locations for fans to run down the checklist of Alice’s stops.
Where to watch: Amazon, Hulu, YouTube
The 1981 film Diva, as well as the 1985 movie Subway, are classics that accurately depict the City of Lights, says Nicole LeBlanc of the travel agency monVOYAGE.
“Both of these films fall into the ‘cinéma du look’ category, reflecting a certain rebellious and new wave revival vibe,” LeBlanc says. “These two atmospheric films are linked together in my mind because they are prime examples of the same era of French filmmaking: both have plots with characters being hunted down by unsavory types, and both feature the metro quite prominently. It’s awfully fun to recall these films or imagine yourself in their metro scenes when you’re swooshing around the Parisian underground yourself.”
The movies avoid the cliche glamour of Paris that some movies about the city rely on, instead opting to feature locations tourists often miss. In other words, places that are “not picture postcards and yet they are still quintessentially Parisian,” LeBlanc says. Though there is one thing to note in Diva: “It’s not okay to ride your moped on the metro escalator, nor on the train itself.”
Where to watch: Diva can be found on YouTube, and Subway is on Vudu
8. Emily in Paris
If you’ve kept up with any Paris-related TV talk over the past year, then you’ve heard of the Netflix show Emily in Paris. If not, well, you’ve missed out on a whole lot of people describing their favorite show to hate watch. Emily in Paris is about a Chicago woman in marketing who goes to France to give her uninformed two cents on how a French marketing agency should operate (which is difficult considering she speaks no French).
Scholkowski took issue with how so many people speak English in the show and how French people are depicted as picking up on every stranger who passes. And then there’s the problem with Emily’s apartment: “It’s exaggerated, unrealistic, and never in a million years would anyone with her job be able to afford that palace of an apartment they paint her to live in,” Scholkowski says.
Still, there’s a reason why enough people watched the show for Netflix to greenlight a second season. Peter Kantzos, owner of France Travel Blog, is one of the show’s defenders.
“I recently started the show Emily In Paris on Netflix and I got to say I like it and the whole depiction of Paris and Parisians, although [it’s] a bit over the top in some cases for comedic purposes I suppose,” Kantzos says. He specifically points to all of the people who smoke for one, as well as the depiction of Parisians as rude and overly aggressive about hitting on strangers.
“These are the largest cliches that the show depicts that I know that many French people don’t agree with and they do not like the show for that reason,” Kantzos says, “but I still find them funny exactly because they are so much over the top. I might find them funny because I am not French but still. If you take the show and its depiction of Parisians too seriously and at face value then yes, I suppose that it could give off a wrong impression of the city and its residents but I believe most people will just laugh it off.”
Where to watch: Netflix
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