The exhibition spoke as much about Paris as the American public. For the average American, Paris is touted as a place representing desire, pleasure and sophistication. McDonald's transforms into Tinseltown French Brasserie. They discover before long French fashion like Givenchy and Jean Paul Gaultier which appear alien to their Wal-Mart bargains. The exhibit itself showcased a variety of gowns and outfits, in particular some stunning creations from Hubert de Givenchy who designed many of Audrey Hepburn's iconic looks. One of the exhibition’s highlights was a gold-sequined ball gown from the musical Lovely to Look At (1952) which was displayed behind glass in the centre of the grand hall.
What was beautifully evasive however was the word “fantasy” which sparkled on the walls in the form of posters and blown up movie clips of scenes involving vintage cars, baguettes and lots of French kissing. Here we see the Paris of German-American filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch created dozens of films in the 20s and 30s using replicas of Paris, admitting “I’ve been to Paris, France, and I’ve been to Paris Paramount. Paris Paramount is better.”
The exposition walks the voyeur through the history of Paris' illustration in silent films, towards the stylish Paris of romantic comedies, the Cancan with all the spirit of Moulin Rouge (1952), and lastly Paris as seen in Hollywood action films. The exhibition showcases a variety of film clips featured on the 42-foot-long projection screen, including a scene from Funny Face (1957) starring Hepburn and Fred Estaire singing at the Eiffel Tower summit, creating none other than a romantic illusion. Dozens of smaller screens scatter the aisles, exhibiting excerpts from films and interviews with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock. Photographs and set models from Hollywood films are part of the 100 strong collection, paired with colourful mood boards and fabric trimmings. Original sketches of Paris drawn in coloured chalks steal the show with their fine detailing and impressive clarity. It is one of the few instances when a spectator outside the world of film can truly experience the aptitude of the artists involved in creating both sets and costumes first-hand.
My immediate impression was that of wanting to fall head-first into one of these blissfully charismatic models of Paris, until I realised that the Paris I’m in right now is so much more authentic than the one depicted on the Hollywood golden screen. Rather, they are reconstitutions of the Paris effect in Hollywood studios, not only of an aesthetic existence, but also a Paris identifiable by American sensibilities.
Like the exhibition’s curator Antoine de Baecque says, “Paris in Hollywood is not the real city, it’s a cliché. It’s an American projection.”