An American in Paris

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s recent film Amelie has caused quite a stir in its native France, where it has been accused of sentimentally recreating an artificial Paris, digitally sanitized and stripped of all the contrasts and seamier elements which make the real Paris such a vibrant, and diverse city. The film’s overwhelming popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, however, indicates that its critics are fighting a losing battle: the Paris depicted in Amelie, very similar to that of An American In Paris, is so vividly constructed and so entrenched in the collective subconscious, that no amount of gritty urban realism (La Haine, say, or The Lovers on the Bridge) will ever dislodge it. Some places – like Sex In The City’s New York, The West Wing’s White House and Notting Hill’s, um, Notting Hill – are just better on screen than in real life.

Shot, ironically enough, on MGM sound stages in glorious Technicolor, An American In Paris won six Academy Awards in the year of its release (snatching Best Picture away from A Streetcar Named Desire in the process), and is usually regarded as one of Gene Kelly’s greatest films. Here, Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, a former G.I. who has remained in Paris after the end of the war, trying to make a living as a painter. Hardly a tortured artist, he leads a carefree existence, consisting mostly of standing on street corners trying to sell paintings, and drinking cafes au lait in sidewalk bistros with his compatriot, a frustrated classical pianist named Adam Cook (Oscar Levant, in fine comedic form).

The scene in which Kelly is introduced is a gem: he wakes up in a cramped studio apartment and, half-awake, cranks the bed up into the ceiling before setting up his breakfast and transforming the studio into a dining room – pulling furniture out of the closet and flipping up a side table from against the wall. He does this effortlessly, in a series of sleepy, fluid movements, and the overall effect is nothing short of Chaplinesque.

The plot revolves around Kelly’s involvement with an older woman, Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), who claims to be an art patron but seems to be more interested in young artists. Meanwhile, Kelly is smitten with a woman he sees at a bar (Leslie Caron, in her film debut) who, unbeknownst to him, is seeing a friend of Adam’s. The handling of these relationships is awkward and a little dated. Kelly’s friends tease him about accepting financial support from a woman (“Tell me, when you get married will you keep your maiden name?”), and it is clear that he is extremely uncomfortable about the whole thing. Despite her protestations to the contrary, Roberts is established as a serial sexual predator in a conversation overheard in a club, and then depicted as a jealous harridan a few moments later when she blows up at Jerry over his interest in the “very special doll” (his words, naturally) at the next table.

The doll in question is Lisa Bouvier (Caron, only 19 at the time the film was made) and Jerry is so persistent in his pursuit of her (tricking her into giving him her phone number, showing up at her place of work) that for a while this looks like it’s becoming the best musical ever made about stalking. But instead of calling the gendarmes, she finally relents and agrees to go out with him. The remainder of the film charts the couple’s relationship as they both struggle to reconcile their double lives (his with Caron and Foch, hers with him and Georges Guetary, the aforementioned friend of Adam’s).

Ultimately, though, the plot of an MGM musical is a little like the ‘plot’ of a Jackie Chan film (or perhaps a porn flick) – a loose narrative framework on which to hang the scenes in which the experts do their thing. In this department, An American In Paris does not disappoint. Every five or ten minutes the audience is treated to a riveting dance number set to some of the greatest tunes of George and Ira Gershwin. Kelly’s dancing is marvelous to watch. Not only does he make it look easy, he makes it look as though he is enjoying, and sometimes surprising, himself. In his tap numbers, (especially "I Got Rhythm," accompanied by a gaggle of French kids, and "Tra-La-La-La," which he performs in Levant’s apartment, in his doorway and even on his piano) he seems quite effortless, holding his shoulders tense and swaying gracefully from side to side, shaking the tension out through his feet. His style compliments the music perfectly, striking a balance between jazzy and majestic. His duet with Caron on the banks of the Seine, set to the tune of "Our Love Is Here To Stay," makes the audience believe in the depth of the characters’ feelings far more than the rest of their dialogue put together.

At the film’s climax, dialogue is abandoned altogether, in favor of something far more eloquent. The 17-minute fantasy ballet sequence, set to Gershwin’s American In Paris Suite, sees Kelly and Caron pas de deux their way through a series of sets painted to resemble the work of various French painters. This pursuit scene was choreographed by Kelly and won him an honorary Oscar. The musical numbers are not all great – an early trio about the glories of Strauss is especially head-scratching – but the camerawork of Vincente Minnelli as well as the set and costume design combine to create an overall effect that is irresistible. When Kelly sings “’S’Wonderful,” it is not difficult to agree.

– Ben Stephens

poster from MovieGoods