An American in Paris

Americans have long swooned for Paris. It is a love that has lasted, at the very least, for 60 years, since MGM married the two nations in Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris. Its re-release this autumn, courtesy of the British Film Institute, is a welcome reminder of why the Americans fell and continue falling in love with Paris – and why we Brits should start falling, too.

For a movie itself so charmed by Paris, that views the city as through the merciful tint of la vie en rose, An American in Paris begins surprisingly sardonically and, very nearly, realistically. The film opens, not with an adoring shot of a Parisian boulevard, the Arc de Triomphe or even the Eiffel Tower, but with a view inside, through the window of its American hero, Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) and into his makeshift apartment, a bedsit-cum-box-atelier of sorts. In this cramped quarter, we find a jovial Jerry performing a routine of morning tasks – swiftly folding away his bed, opening the breakfast tray, propping up a canvas – with a jolly akin to the chirpiness of the “Good Morning!” song in greater known Kelly classic, Singin’ in the Rain. Such a start to the day is just another in the life of Jerry Mulligan, a penniless painter and, like his work, a perpetual work in progress. Across the hall, lying in bed and already lamenting the day is musician, Adam Cook (Oscar Levant); clearly not as spritely as his friend. Both Jerry and Adam came to be in Paris as former GIs, staying on after the war with big ideas and ample optimism only to have these crushed as failing artistes: Jerry, the painter, is no Picasso; Adam (calls himself) a concert pianist, though he’s never played a concert. Such are their halting realities. These Americans in Paris are thus humbly portrayed as hopeless goons and not, as might be expected, reified as models of expat success. Indeed, the film does as much to highlight the schism between the ideal Paris dreamed up by Jerry and Adam and the actual Paris they live and breathe, as it does to exalt the city’s promise as a mecca for artists and lovers, alike.

60 years on, the reissue of An American in Paris is both a vow renewal and extended bon anniversaire to the Franco-American romance; a cinematic affirmation that, more than half a century later, American movie-makers and goers (and British ones, too) are still very much in love with Paris. Another reason for its reissue might have a lot to do with another film release: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, an uncharacteristically optimistic picture about Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), an eternal romantic and novelist in the making with an inexorable, unrequited love for 1920s Paris and all its shimmying splendour. Midnight in Paris is the latest, somewhat unexpected, segment in a trajectory of American films professing their love for Paree; a chain no doubt kicked off by An American in Paris, with the tap of Gene Kelly’s soles in his routines and the twirl of skirts in the film’s notorious 17-minute ballet. This is not to say that the two films, whilst direct descendants, are made of the same stuff, however, or that the reissue of An American in Paris is a mere crutch for the success of Midnight in Paris. Au contraire, like the dynamic relationship between the American and Parisian as rendered in both films, each respectively glamourize and mock their Francophilia as they demonstrate, when watched together, how America’s love affair with Paris has developed but, by no means, dwindled over time.

Bon vivant Jerry is a poorer, less bookish prototype for Gil Pender. Both are quixotic Americans in Paris, dreamy flâneurs awoken by reality only at intervals as a careless streetwalker might stumble on occasion into a lamppost. One gets the impression that Jerry’s life in Paris is not half as vivacious as he thought it would be, but, despite his artwork barely selling, he is still relatively hopeful – of what, though, is unclear. Finding himself in a predicament, without wine or women, Jerry continues to perform his painterly routine, acting out a life, selling his work in earnest on the same cobbled Montmartre street. It’s here, and in this critical condition (without the customary wine and women), that Jerry is first approached by Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), an admiring customer with art dealer connections and a roving eye for talent, artistic and otherwise. A cougar in her financial prime and on the prowl, Foch’s performance is reminiscent of a blonder Patricia Neal in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and exhibits a similar cunning as she ventures to sponsor and seduce Jerry. Milo’s plans are promptly thwarted, however, on a “business” date with Jerry when he meets and, in the way of a romantic comedy made in 1951, falls in love at first sight with Lise (Leslie Caron). Spotting the gamine, butter-wouldn’t-melt beauty at the next table, cocksure Jerry makes his move, insisting on a dance. At first, Lise is unamused by the brash American’s efforts to woo her, but when Jerry pays an impromptu visit to Lise’s workplace – a parfumerie, no less, where one’s head is invariably floatier – he manages to charm an indecisive customer into making a sizeable purchase and Lise, evidently working on commission, into going out with him.

From there, Jerry and Lise’s love progresses rapidly and dreamily, enacted for the most part along the lamp lit banks of the Seine. Allen would later borrow this idea for Gil’s riverside strolls with Adriana (Marion Cotillard) in Midnight in Paris. An unscripted character in both films, Paris imposes itself in the love affairs of its citizens – so much so in An American in Paris, that Lise and Jerry are themselves in a kind of ménage a trois, with Paris the guest star of their romance. Or, are Jerry and Lise, like Gil and Adriana, mere pawns implicit in the other, greater love between America and Paris? If a threesome’s going a little far, at any rate, the magic of Paris, enhanced by the film’s woozy lighting effects and its wistful Gershwin soundtrack, has somehow nudged these dalliances together. But the course of true love never does run smoothly – not even in Paris. Obstacles inevitably present themselves as Milo, using money as a barter, continues to prey after Jerry in the lead up to his first exhibition and Lise’s engagement to singer, Henri Baudel (Georges Guetary) – to make matters more complex, an acquaintance of Adam’s – comes to light. An American in Paris thus plays out in the love triangle paradigm, though there is not one but two romantic entanglements with Milo, Jerry, Lise, Henri, even Paris, all involved – and then there is poor Adam, the perpetual sidekick, growing increasingly distressed by his friends’ infidelities. With its buffoon humour and trope characters, its love squares and triangles, there’s a certain Commedia dell’Arte aspect about An American in Paris that, only occasionally wearisome (there’s only so much tomfoolery one can handle), adds to its goofy appeal. The film has an unapologetic, frankly dated sense of humour. It’s a bit like watching Donald O’Connor’s lips during his performance of “Make ’em Laugh” in Singin’ in the Rain; you’re sure it used to be funny and can appreciate that, perhaps even justify its faint humour with a brief chuckle, but it just doesn’t warrant a good hearty laugh anymore.

Aside from its over the top comedy, it’s the exuberant dance sequences of An American in Paris – in particular, that infamous 17-minute ballet to the Gershwin title track – that really steal the show. Throughout the ballet unravels an eloquent performance that encapsulates, more powerfully than their words ever could, the better and worse aspects of Jerry and Lise’s love. The ballet, like the dream sequence between Tony and Maria in West Side Story, lends a sense of the rhythm of their relationship and a feel for the interior world they have created around it. In this danced dialogue, we see Jerry and Lise, replete with respective same-sex choruses, Bollywood-style, really fall in love with one another. Dance thus bridges the language barrier between the couple and is, in many respects, their ultimate vernacular. Moreover, while Lise is given meagre opportunity for much dialogue (or any real psychological development) alongside her chatty love interest throughout, it is through dance that she’s really able to communicate with Jerry and with us, conveying who she is. During talking scenes, Lise is quiet and, when she does talk, it is to say she doesn’t like talking about herself. As a result, Lise seems a rather limpid, incomplete character with little to her save her beauty, but the ballet enables her to express an identity that goes beyond the mould of pretty Parisienne attributed to her; Lise is led by her heart (and her feet), she is impetuous, passionate and even a tad cheeky. Just as dance redeems Lise’s character, the film’s Gershwin soundtrack bestows Paris with its own metropolitan identity. It seems Gershwin had quite an ability to compose music for the city street and the screen; the sound of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” does for An American in Paris and the city at its locus, what the meandering jazz of “Rhapsody in Blue” does for Woody Allen’s Manhattan and New York. Though “An American in Paris” was written for the film, and the film in turn choreographed and scripted to the music, they fit each other like a hand in glove, especially in the ballet; an extended street scene where place, sound and movement all coalesce in routine as though by happenstance, a performance of Paris at its most effervescent, come alive through a young couple’s love.

Those 17 minutes of a phantasmagorically shot Paris that belongs only to Jerry and Lise – a series of beautiful, tender movements in music and dance – are what ultimately carry An American in Paris through to the screen today, as a still sparkling token of cinematic art. With Midnight in Paris enjoying recent acclaim, An American in Paris, the raison d’être of such fine current cinema, remakes its mark on film’s history reel as an eternal stimulus for movies about falling in love with and in Paris. A metropolitan fairytale abuzz with the energy and traffic of a Parisian parade, An American in Paris is a lasting adventure that departs from reality for a total of 17 minutes, 60 years and counting…

This article was originally published on The What Where When.

One Response to “An American in Paris”
  1. Fiona Benneett says:

    An easy way for an old fogie like me to keep up with the latest cultural events. Thank you!

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