When chronicling a Paris trip, you aren’t supposed to write about your first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, or the time you spent tiptoeing about it taking photographs in the wide-eyed touristy way. It’s much cooler to pretend you barely noticed this most over-familiar of landmarks, never mind that it was a constant presence, winking down at you like the all-seeing Eye of Sauron wherever you went. Rani, the heroine of the recent Hindi film Queen — a homespun but plucky young woman who decides to go on her Paris honeymoon alone after her fiancé cancels the wedding — knows something about this. She wants no truck with the tower (it brings back sad memories of her boyfriend’s romantic promises), but finds she can’t escape it.
That’s two movie references in one paragraph, and here’s another. When I first saw Gustave Eiffel’s lattice monster during a cab ride, the image that crept into my mind was a cinematic one: the lovely opening shots of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, where the credits roll over visuals of the tower peeking out at the camera through the city’s distinctive Haussmann buildings, as if playing now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t with the film’s young protagonist Antoine Doinel.
My Paris stay was marked by movie reference points of this sort — it helped organise my thoughts about a place so filled with things to do that even a whole week spent there can leave you feeling unfulfilled. I have seen fragments of the city in dozens of films over the years, from Chris Marker’s classic short La Jetée, which begins with an apocalyptic vision of a Paris destroyed in a future war, to Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle, with its beautiful opening sequence where stray dogs canter from the quaint “old Paris”, with its open-air markets, towards a more impersonal, developing metropolis. In one room of my memory palace, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn swish through the Place Vendôme and the Ritz in Charade; in another, Sharmila Tagore and Shammi Kapoor redefine chic during a nighttime walk past the Luxor Obelisk in An Evening in Paris.
And so, movie scenes kept unspooling in my mind, even in the art museums. Trying to comprehend the incredible vastness of the Louvre, for instance, I thought of the scene in Godard’s Bande à part where three young people sprint noisily through the galleries just to see how much ground they can cover, never mind looking at any of the artworks — one of the great depictions of youthful exuberance cocking a snook at the sort of cultural hegemony that demands you gaze thoughtfully and silently at a painting for several minutes. Naturally, I wasn’t as bold as the kids in the film, but even while gazing at art, I was recalling filmic images. An Auguste Renoir painting was a reminder of the vivid use of light and colour in films directed by the artist’s son Jean in the 1950s — a testament to a father and son working in two very different mediums but bringing a similar visual sensibility to them. (One of those films, The River, set in colonial-era Bengal, had a young man named Satyajit Ray as consultant.) The layout of the Orsay Museum — which was once a train station — brought a fresh appreciation of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, set in the 1930s in just such an old-world station, complete with a giant wall-clock like the one at the Orsay. And at the Rodin Museum, the celebrated statue The Thinker put me in mind of an observation made by the film director Rouben Mamoulian during a talk about the misguided importance given to “realism” in art. Pointing out a little detail that often goes unnoticed even by those who think they know Rodin’s statue well, Mamoulian said, “The thinker is sitting, believe it or not, with one elbow on the opposite knee. It’s not natural or comfortable, but aesthetically and artistically it has a focus. It has design and rhythm and power. What is unnatural becomes true.”
The movie theme continued in the Latin Quarter. Outside the Notre Dame cathedral, a man wearing a gargoyle mask came running up in an effort to scare us, but I barely noticed since I was thinking about Charles Laughton as the doleful, self-pitying Quasimodo in the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, looking out from the rooftop; so what if the cathedral used in the film was a constructed one? Later, during a walking tour of the Left Bank, our guide had just taken us past the Pantheon and a couple of churches when he casually mentioned that Woody Allen (“you know, the US director?” said in the tone of someone who was unsure we watched American films) had shot a scene on the nearby stairs. I looked back, and there it was: the very place where Owen Wilson sits at midnight in Midnight in Paris, waiting for the car that will magically transport him to the Paris of the 1920s, to the world of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Dalí.
In picturesque Montmartre, where we stayed, there was of course the Moulin Rouge with its bright red windmill — the title, and the setting, for Baz Luhrmann’s musical as well as John Huston’s 1952 film about the artist Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec. But during a walk around the winding lanes leading up to the Basilique du Sacré Coeur, we also passed the Café des 2 Moulins, where Amelie — the gaminish heroine of the hugely popular 2001 film — worked as a waitress. And the Montmartre cemetery, where François Truffaut lies buried — another reminder not just of The 400 Blows but also of a poignant photograph of the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, who played Antoine Doinel in so many Truffaut films, placing a flower on his guru’s tomb.
I may as well admit this — one of the reasons I pre-booked a cycling tour of Versailles online was a dim memory of Truffaut’s short film Les Mistons, which begins with tracking shots of Bernadette Lafont cycling her way through city roads that seem incredibly well suited to such a form of travel. Living in Delhi, I wouldn’t have the courage to take a bicycle anywhere near a road, so this seemed like something to cross off the bucket list, and indeed the Versailles bike trip was one of the highlights of our week. Mainly because the focus wasn’t on spending hours wandering through the massive, treasure-laden rooms of the palace (something that can become wearying, especially if you know that many of the fittings on view are only facsimiles of the things originally used by Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette). Instead our guide Rick — an effortlessly funny raconteur with little respect for long-dead kings and queens—encouraged our group to forget about the destination and enjoy the journey. His favourite part of the tour, he said, was cycling through the castle lawns and settling down there for a picnic, and we soon saw why.
At the town’s open-air market, we shopped for baguettes, cheese, meats and macaroons, overcoming the language barrier (“B-a-a-a-h-h-h,” said the man behind a counter, indicating a particularly creamy variety of goat cheese studded with raisins) and my mind went all filmi again; this old-world setting evoked the perfectly timed scene in Mon Oncle where Tati’s Mr Hulot, carrying a bag with a large pike — its mouth open, making it seem alive and menacing — shops at a grocer’s kiosk, and a dog beneath the stall snarls back at the dead fish. A few unhurried minutes of cycling later, we were on the lawns, with a view of symmetrical trees, people rowing about in boats nearby, and geese flying overhead in formation (if their ancestors were doing this for the Louises and the Napoleons, it must have been just as impressive as the Air Force gymnastics performed for heads of state today). All the bicycles had names, incidentally, and we got to pick the ones we wanted. My choice: “Royale with Cheese” — a phrase made famous by Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where it is drawled first by John Travolta and then by Samuel L. Jackson as they discuss what the Paris version of McDonald’s is like.
However, the most specific cinema-related tourism I did was a trip to the Cinémathèque Française museum in Bercy, a relatively long metro trip from Montmartre but worth it if you were on a private pilgrimage like I was. My chief motivation for going there was to see a woman who had haunted my dreams since I was 13. Shrivelled and eyeless, she appeared at the very end of the film that got me seriously interested in cinema and set me on the path to writing professionally about the medium.
The skull of Mrs. Bates makes her famous appearance in the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in a creaky scene in the basement, where Norman’s mummy is revealed to be a carefully preserved corpse. If I had wanted my illusions to be just as well-preserved, I would have avoided going to the museum at all, so that my only mental picture would be of her as she appears in the film. There was something both comical and poignant about seeing “her” in a glass cage, bathed in a beam of yellow light, more than 5000 miles removed in space (and more than five decades in time) from the Bates Motel in Fairvale, California, circa 1960. She was clearly visible from a distance in the otherwise darkened room, and the idea was presumably to make her look spooky, but it also drew attention to her as an exhibit, something that visitors could point and chortle at (or sit down next to and smile stupidly for a camera, as I couldn’t help doing). She was, how to say this, unimposing.
Viewing other artefacts — such as the frosty-looking robot Maria created by an evil scientist in Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis, the starfish in the jar from Man Ray’s 1928 film L’Étoile de Mer, and costumes from such movies as Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast—was a reminder that famous movie props can, when removed from their familiar contexts, be banal and smaller than life. Cocteau’s film was in gorgeous black and white, and these brightly coloured costumes seemed garish when set against the vivid, dreamlike images from the film, playing on a screen above the exhibit. For anyone who has been immersed in the otherworldly milieu of a movie like Beauty and the Beast, going to a cinema museum is an exercise in demystification — a reminder that the film was planned and then shot by a cast and crew, who were probably doing mundane things like talking about the day’s news or taking cigarette breaks in between shots.
Saying hello to Mrs. Bates was a high point of my life, but the lesson I ultimately learnt from my trip was that for the movie buff, Paris itself is a limitless museum of wonders, full of memories and associations that can’t be confined within the four walls of a building — a dreamscape where Monsieur Hulot, the cathedral hunchback, the heroine of a 2014 Bollywood film and countless other characters can speak to each other across time and space. Georges Méliès, the magician and film pioneer who created so many of the first cinematic “special effects” here back in the 19th century, would probably have figured out a way to get all these people together in the same frame.
Direct flights from Delhi to Paris are operated by Air India, Air France and other international carriers such as Emirates (round trip: about Rs 58,460 per person).
A Schengen Visa is required for travel to France. Apply for the visa at the French Embassy or get one through a travel agent. For details see vfs-france.co.in.
1 euro (€) = Rs 82
Where to stay
We stayed six nights at the Mercure Paris Montmartre Sacre Coeur (from Rs 9,200; +33-9-69366130, mercure.com), just around the corner from the Moulin Rouge. This is a clean and comfortable four-star hotel with decent-sized rooms (by Paris standards) and a 10-15-minute walk from some of the city’s most picturesque sights, around the Sacre Coeur basilica.
Other hotel options include the Hippodrome Hotel (from Rs 6,960; +33-1-43876552, hotel-hippodrome.com), Le Relais Montmartre (from Rs 7,455; +33-1- 70642525, hotel-relais-montmartre. com), Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme (from Rs 62,260; +33-1-58711234, paris.vendome.hyatt.com).
We travelled almost exclusively by the metro, which is fast, relatively cheap and convenient — road traffic can be slow. Keep a metro map handy; it’s easy to figure out routes based on the starting and ending station on each line. If you are planning to make many metro trips (as we did), I recommend buying a carnet (a packet of 10 tickets, available at a discounted rate — approx €13.8).
Walking is also a great option in Paris, when the weather is good.
We booked the bike tour via Isango (from Rs 7,300 per person; 0124-4148173, isango.com).
Where to eat & drink
We stuck mainly with street food, such as crepes bought on the run. The tea-shop Angelina (+33-1-42608200, angelina-paris.fr), near the Louvre museum, is almost a tourist destination for the first-time Paris traveler — try their signature hot chocolate and Croque Madame (a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich with a poached egg on top).
And when you visit Notre- Dame, don’t miss the brilliant ice-creams at Berthillon (+33- 1-3543161, berthillon.fr). If you visit the Pompidou museum, the Crêperie Beaubourg (+33-1- 42776362, creperiebeaubourg.com) is a good place to have a quick meal.
If you plan to visit more than three or four of the main museums (e.g. the Louvre, Orsay, the Orangeries, the Rodin, the Pompidou), pick up a Paris Museum Pass (parispass. com), which gets you discounted, skip-the-lines entry into a selection of museums.