Yves Saint Laurent once declared that fashion is a way of life, and most Parisians would agree. Dressing well is part of the Parisian DNA, the world's eyes are on the city during the biannual fashion weeks, and new labels spring up in the French capital every year. But less well known is that Parisian haute couture (literally ‘high sewing’) as it exists today was created by an Englishman.
Revolution & Drama
Nicknamed ‘the Napoléon of costumers’, 20-year-old Englishman Charles Frederick Worth (1825–95) arrived in Paris and revolutionised fashion by banishing the crinoline (stiffened petticoat), lifting hemlines to ankle length and presenting his creations on live models. The House of Worth stayed in the family for four generations until the 1950s.
In the 1990s highly creative, rebel-yell British designers such as Alexander McQueen (1969–2010) and John Galliano (b 1960) dominated Paris' fashion scene. One of the industry’s biggest influencers, Gibraltar-born and London-raised Galliano moved to Paris in 1991 and became chief designer at Givenchy in 1995. A year later he moved to Dior, the legendary French fashion house responsible for re-establishing Paris as world fashion capital after WWII. Galliano's first women’s collection for Dior was spectacular – models waltzed down a catwalk framed by 500 gold chairs and 4000 roses arranged to recreate the postwar glamour of Christian Dior’s 1946 showroom on av Montaigne, 8e, in Paris' legendary Triangle d’Or (Golden Triangle).
The downfall of fashion's talented enfant terrible was dramatic. In 2011 Galliano was caught on camera casting public insults at punters at his neighbourhood cafe-bar La Perle in Le Marais. He was dismissed by the House of Dior and later found guilty in court of anti-Semitic abuse.
Outlandish designs by rising stars such as Serkan Cura (who crafts work-of-art dresses from feathers and Swarovski crystals) or world-famous couturiers like 'wild child' Jean-Paul Gaultier (known for putting men in punky skirts and Madonna in her signature conical bra) might strut down the Paris catwalk during fashion week. But you encounter few Cura- or Gaultier-clad women in the metro: Parisian style is generally too conservative for that.
London-inspired street wear jumps off the shelves in trendy shops around rue Étienne Marcel in the Louvre & Les Halles neighbourhood, and Le Marais. The Haut Marais, 3e, is known for its young designer boutiques. Streetwise menswear brand Pigalle is based in the neighbourhood of the same name; it was established by designer and basketball player Stephane Ashpool, who grew up here.
Other names to watch and wear include Antonin Tron, Pierre Kaczmarek (look for his label After Homework), Marine Serre (winner of the LVMH prize in 2017), Valentine Gauthier, Sakina M’sa, and Anne Elisabeth, a well-travelled Parisian designer with boutiques in the 1er and 6e. Christelle Kocher's Koché is based in edgy Ménilmontant. Parisian handbag designers include Nat & Nin, Kasia Dietz and Jamin Puech.
BCBG & Intello
In upper-crust circles, the BCBG (bon chic bon genre) woman shops at department store Le Bon Marché or Chanel and rarely ventures outside her preferred districts: the 7e, 8e and 16e. Fast-growing brands like Kooples, Maje, Sandro, Comptoir des Cotonniers and Zadig & Voltaire are huge among BCBG.
The chic Left Bank intello (intellectual) shops for trendy but highly wearable fashion at upmarket high-street boutiques such as Agnès b (created in Paris in 1975 by Versailles designer Agnès Troublé – the ‘b’ gives a nod to her husband) and APC (Atelier de Production et de Création).
Bobo & Hipster
Bastille, Le Marais and the 10e around Canal St-Martin are stomping grounds of the bobo (bourgeois bohemian) – modern bohemians with wealthy bourgeois backgrounds, whose style roots itself in nostalgia for that last voyage to India, Tibet or Senegal and that avowed commitment to free trade and beads. The wildest bobos wear Kate Mack and dress their kids in romantic rockesque designs by Liza Korn, at home in 10e.
Younger professional bobos frequent concept store Merci or smaller concept stores with carefully curated collections like L’Éclaireur and the Broken Arm in Le Marais. Isabel Marant – with boutiques in Le Marais, Bastille and St-Germain des Prés – enjoys cult worship among Parisian bobos thanks to her chic but easy style that teams wearable-year-round floral dresses or denim mini skirts with loose knits and lush scarves. Another favourite is Vanessa Bruno, a Parisian brand again known for its wearable, if slightly edgy, fashion, such as crocheted bra tops, and cotton skirts with metallic thread to maintain shape. On the jewellery front, designs by Marion Vidal are bold, funky and heavily architecture-influenced.
Paris' Brooklyn-styled hipster is similar to a bobo but often without the money. Parisian hipsters reject big-name or known fashion labels for a 'purist', often vintage, look.
Ready to Wear
Céline, prized for its stylish and clever minimalism since 1945, is a luxury label so popular it's practically mainstream in its ready-to-wear, ‘fashion for everyone’ approach. Chloé is the other big ready-to-wear house, created in 1952 and the first haute couture label to introduce (in 1956) a designer ready-to-wear collection. Paris’ prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) industry was born.
Nostalgia & Recycling
Parisians' appreciation of quality means that the desire in less-uber-trendy circles to have an original Hermès scarf or Chanel black dress never tires.
Parisian women play safe with classic designs and monotones, jazzed up by a scarf (those by Hermès, founded by a saddle-maker in 1837, are the most famous) or other simple accessory, hence the fervent nostalgia for the practical designs and modern simplicity of interwar designer Coco Chanel (1883–1971), celebrated creator of the 1920s' 'little black dress'. Equal enthusiasm for pieces by Givenchy, Féraud and other designers from the 1950s heyday of Paris fashion contribute to the overwhelming demand today for vintage clothing.
Twice a year Parisian auction house Hôtel Drouot hosts haute couture auctions. Collector Didier Ludot has sold the city’s finest couture creations of yesteryear in his exclusive boutique at Palais Royal since 1975. In St-Germain, Catherine B specialises in vintage fashion and accessories from fashion houses Chanel and Hermès only, with a collection at any one time of some 1500 pieces.
Post-vintage fashion is about recycling. Art and fashion studio Andrea Crews, originally based in Pigalle and now at home in Le Marais, was among the first to reinvent grandpa’s discarded shirts and daughter’s has-beens into new hip garments.
Trends of Tomorrow
Whereas once young designers were snapped up by the big fashion houses, industry prizes and government grants have smoothed the way for a new wave of independent labels.
Each year the city of Paris' Grand Prix Création de la Ville de Paris is awarded to the 'Best New Designer' (working in the trade for under three years) and 'Best Confirmed Designer' (at least three years in the fashion biz). The list of prize laureates is tantamount to a who’s who of tomorrow’s fashion scene.
Clothing labels to watch include Each X Other (enlisting artists to help design unique fabrics, prints and cuts), Vetements (recycled oversized off-kilter but elegant designs), Jacquemus (deconstructed surrealist asymmetrical concepts), Etudes Studio (chunky genderless contemporary clothing with lots of solid colours), MiniMe Paris (Alice in Wonderland meets pop art) and Y/Project (unusual shapes that blur gender lines). Accessories-wise, look out for perforated leather and animal-print shoes (ankle boots, mules, high heels and sandals) by Aleph Mendel, and customisable handbags with interchangeable zip-on leather strips by Amalgam.
Feature: The Show of Shows
The Paris fashion haute-couture shows fall in late January for the spring/summer collections and early July for autumn/winter ones. But most established couturiers present a more affordable prêt-à-porter line, and many have abandoned haute couture altogether. Prêt-à-porter shows (aka Paris Fashion Week) are in late February/early March and late September/early October. Shows are exclusive affairs not open to the general public.
For alternative catwalk action, reserve a spot at the Friday-afternoon fashion show (March to June and September to December) at department store Galeries Lafayette, 9e.
Sidebar: Fashion Museums & Exhibitions
- Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, 16e
- Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris, 16e
- Cité de la Mode et du Design (Les Docks), 13e
Sidebar: Window Shopping
Paris coined the expression lèche-vitrine (literally ‘window-licker’) for window shopping. 'Tasting' without buying is an art like any other, so don't be shy. The fancy couture houses on av Montaigne may seem daunting but, in most, no appointment is necessary and you can simply walk in.
Sidebar: YSL on Screen
Two films about fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent were released in 2014: the more innocous 'official' film, Yves Saint Laurent, directed by Jalil Lespert (using original costumes), and the edgier but much longer unauthorised film, Saint Laurent, directed by Bertrand Bonello.
It took disease, clogged streets, an antiquated sewerage system and Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to drag architectural Paris out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world. Yet ever since Haussmann's radical transformation of the city in the 19th century, which saw entire sections razed and thousands of people displaced, Paris has never looked back. Today its skyline shimmers with the whole gamut of architectural styles, from Roman arenas and Gothic cathedrals to postmodernist cubes and futuristic skyscrapers.
Traces of Roman Paris can be seen in the residential foundations in the Crypte Archéologique in front of Notre Dame; in the Arènes de Lutèce; and in the frigidarium (cooling room) and other remains of Roman baths dating from around AD 200 at the Musée National du Moyen Âge.
The latter museum also contains the Pillier des Nautes (Boatsmen’s Pillar), one of the most valuable legacies of the Gallo-Roman period. It is a 2.5m-high monument dedicated to Jupiter and was erected by the boatmen’s guild during the reign of Tiberius (AD 14–37) on the Île de la Cité. The boat has become the symbol of Paris, and the city’s Latin motto is ‘Fluctuat Nec Mergitur’ (Tossed by Waves but Does Not Sink).
Merovingian & Carolingian
Although quite a few churches were built in Paris during the Merovingian and Carolingian periods (6th to 10th centuries), very little of them remains.
When the Merovingian ruler Clovis I made Paris his seat in the early 6th century, he established an abbey on the south bank of the Seine. All that remains is the Tour Clovis, a heavily restored Romanesque tower within the grounds of the prestigious Lycée Henri IV just east of the Panthéon.
Archaeological excavations in the crypt of the 12th-century Basilique de St-Denis have uncovered extensive tombs from the Merovingian and Carolingian periods; the oldest dates from around AD 570.
A religious revival in the 11th century led to the construction of many roman (Romanesque) churches, typically with round arches, heavy walls, few (and small) windows and a lack of ornamentation that bordered on the austere.
No remaining building in Paris is entirely Romanesque, but several have important representative elements. Église St-Germain des Prés, built in the 11th century on the site of the Merovingian ruler Childeric’s 6th-century abbey, has been altered many times over the centuries, but the Romanesque bell tower above the west entrance has changed little since AD 1000. The choir, apse and truncated bell tower of Église St-Nicolas des Champs, now part of the Musée des Arts et Métiers, are Romanesque.
The world’s first Gothic building was Basilique de St-Denis, which combined various late-Romanesque elements to create a new kind of structural support in which each arch counteracted and complemented the next. The basilica served as a model for many 12th-century French cathedrals, including Notre Dame de Paris and Chartres.
In the 14th century the Rayonnant – or Radiant – Gothic style, named after the radiating tracery of the rose windows, developed. Interiors became even lighter thanks to broader windows and more translucent stained glass. One of the most influential Rayonnant buildings was Sainte-Chapelle, whose stained glass forms a curtain of glazing on the 1st floor. The two transept façades of Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris and the vaulted Salle des Gens d’Armes (Cavalrymen’s Hall) in the Conciergerie, the largest surviving medieval hall in Europe, are other fine examples of Rayonnant Gothic style.
By the 15th century decorative extravagance led to Flamboyant Gothic, so named because the wavy stone carving made the towers appear to be blazing or flaming (flamboyant). Beautifully lacy examples of Flamboyant architecture include the Clocher Neuf (New Bell Tower) at Chartres' cathedral; Église St-Séverin; and Tour St-Jacques, a 52m tower that is all that remains of an early 16th-century church. Inside Église St-Eustache there’s some outstanding Flamboyant Gothic arch work holding up the ceiling of the chancel. Several hôtels particuliers (private mansions) were also built in this style, including Hôtel de Cluny, now the Musée National du Moyen Âge.
The Renaissance set out to realise a ‘rebirth’ of classical Greek and Roman culture and first affected France at the end of the 15th century, when Charles VIII began a series of invasions of Italy, returning with some new ideas.
The Early Renaissance style, in which a variety of classical components and decorative motifs (columns, tunnel vaults, round arches, domes etc) were blended with the rich decoration of Flamboyant Gothic, is best exemplified in Paris by Église St-Eustache on the Right Bank and Église St-Étienne du Mont on the Left Bank.
Mannerism was introduced by Italian architects and artists brought to France around 1530 by François I. In 1546 Pierre Lescot designed the richly decorated southwestern corner of the Cour Carrée at the Musée du Louvre.
The Right Bank district of Le Marais remains the best area for Renaissance reminders in Paris proper, with some fine hôtels particuliers, such as Hôtel Carnavalet, housing part of the Musée Carnavalet.
During the baroque period (tail end of the 16th to late 18th centuries), painting, sculpture and classical architecture were integrated to create structures and interiors of great subtlety, refinement and elegance. With the advent of the baroque, architecture became more pictorial, with painted church ceilings illustrating the Passion of Christ to the faithful, and palaces invoking the power and order of the state.
Salomon de Brosse, who designed the Palais du Luxembourg in the Jardin du Luxembourg in 1615, set the stage for two of France’s most prominent early-baroque architects: François Mansart, designer of Église Notre Dame du Val-de-Grâce, and his young rival Louis Le Vau, architect of Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, which served as a model for Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles.
Other fine French-baroque examples include Église St-Louis en l’Île, Chapelle de la Sorbonne, Palais Royal and Hôtel de Sully, with its inner courtyard decorated with allegorical figures.
Neoclassical architecture emerged about 1740 and had its roots in the renewed interest in classical forms – a search for order, reason and serenity through the adoption of forms and conventions of Graeco-Roman antiquity: columns, geometric forms and traditional ornamentation.
Among the earliest examples of this style are the Italianate façade of Église St-Sulpice, and the Petit Trianon at Versailles, designed by Jacques-Ange Gabriel for Louis XV in 1761. The domed building in Paris housing the Institut de France is a masterpiece of early French neoclassical architecture, but France’s greatest neoclassical architect of the 18th century was Jacques-Germain Soufflot, creator of the Panthéon in the Latin Quarter.
Neoclassicism came into its own under Napoléon, who used it extensively for monumental architecture intended to embody the grandeur of imperial France and its capital: the Arc de Triomphe, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, Église de Ste-Marie Madeleine, the Bourse de Commerce, and the Assemblée Nationale in the Palais Bourbon. The peak of this great 19th-century movement was Palais Garnier, the city's opera house designed by Charles Garnier.
Art nouveau, which emerged in Europe and the USA in the second half of the 19th century under various names (Jugendstil, Sezessionstil, Stile Liberty, Modernisme), caught on quickly in Paris, and its influence lasted until WWI. It was characterised by sinuous curves and flowing, asymmetrical forms reminiscent of creeping vines, water lilies, the patterns on insect wings and the flowering boughs of trees. Influenced by the arrival of exotic objets d’art from Japan, art nouveau's French name came from a Paris gallery that featured works in the ‘new art’ style.
A lush and photogenic architectural style, art nouveau is expressed to perfection in Paris by Hector Guimard’s graceful metro entrances and Le Marais synagogue, the former train station housing the Musée d’Orsay, and department stores including Le Bon Marché, Galeries Lafayette and La Samaritaine.
France’s best-known 20th-century architect, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (aka Le Corbusier), was born in Switzerland but settled in Paris in 1917 at the age of 30. A radical modernist, he tried to adapt buildings to their functions in industrialised society without ignoring the human element. Most of Le Corbusier’s work was done outside Paris, though he did design several private residences and the Pavillon Suisse, a dormitory for Swiss students at the Cité Internationale Universitaire in the 14e.
But until 1968 French architects were still being trained almost exclusively at the conformist École des Beaux-Arts, reflected in most of the early impersonal and forgettable ‘lipstick tubes’ and ‘upended shoebox’ structures erected in the skyscraper district of La Défense, the Unesco building (1958) in the 7e, and the 210m-tall Tour Montparnasse (1973).
For centuries France’s leaders have sought to immortalise themselves by erecting huge public edifices ('grands projets') in Paris. Georges Pompidou commissioned the once reviled, now much-loved Centre Pompidou. His successor, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, was instrumental in transforming the derelict Gare d’Orsay train station into the glorious Musée d’Orsay (1986).
François Mitterrand surpassed all of the postwar presidents with monumental projects costing taxpayers €4.6 billion: Jean Nouvel's Institut du Monde Arabe (1987), built during this time, mixes modern Arab and Western elements and is arguably one of the city's most beautiful late-20th-century buildings. Mitterrand also oversaw the city’s second opera house, tile-clad Opéra de Paris Bastille, designed by Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott in 1989; the monumental Grande Arche de la Défense by Danish architect Johan-Otto von Sprekelsen (1989); IM Pei’s glass-pyramid entrance at the hitherto sacrosanct and untouchable Musée du Louvre (1989); and the four open-book-shaped glass towers of the €2-billion Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Dominique Perrault, 1995).
Jacques Chirac orchestrated the magnificent Musée du Quai Branly, a glass, wood and sod structure with 3-hectare experimental garden, also by Jean Nouvel.
IM Pei's Louvre pyramid paved the way for Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti’s magnificent ‘flying carpet’ roof atop the museum’s Cour Visconti in 2012.
Drawing on the city's longstanding tradition of metalwork and glass in its architecture, Canadian architect Frank Gehry used 12 enormous glass 'sails' to design the Fondation Louis Vuitton, which opened in the Bois de Boulogne in late 2014.
Jean Nouvel's Philharmonie de Paris, a state-of-the-art creation with a dazzling metallic façade that took three years to build and that cost €381 million, opened in 2015.
Glass is a big feature of the 1970s-eyesore-turned-contemporary-stunner Forum des Halles shopping centre in the 1er – a curvaceous, curvilinear and glass-topped construction by architects Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti, completed in 2016. Another eyesore undergoing renewal is 1970s skyscraper, the Tour Montparnasse, due for completion in 2023.
Clad in a pixelated matrix of glass embedded with LED lights, the new headquarters of national media group Le Monde, designed by Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta, will be unveiled in late 2019.
Jean Nouvel is heading the massive Gare d'Austerlitz renovation expected to finish in 2021. One-third of the budget was allocated to repairing the glass roof.
Porte Maillot will be transformed by Mille Arbres (Thousand Trees), a spectacular tree-topped glass structure by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto and French architect Manal Rachdi. It will provide a pivotal link between central Paris and Grand Paris (Greater Paris) when it opens in 2022.
Art Deco Renaissance
Recent years have seen a renaissance of some of Paris' loveliest art deco buildings. Neo-Egyptian cinema Le Louxor reopened in 2013. The following year, the luxury McGallery arm of the Accor hotel group opened a five-star hotel and spa in the celebrated Molitor swimming-pool complex in western Paris, where the bikini made its first appearance in the 1930s. In Le Marais, thermal-baths-turned-1980s-nightclub Les Bain Douches – another legendary address – opened as luxury hotel Les Bains after years of being abandoned.
Art deco swimming complex Piscine de la Butte aux Cailles in the 13e reopened in 2017 after renovations that included the installation of the city's first Nordic pool. Another art deco beauty of a swimming pool, Piscine des Amiraux, also reopened in 2017. Built in 1930 by La Samaritaine architect Henri Sauvage, its pool is ringed by two levels of changing cabins.
Founded in 1870 by Ernest Cognacq and Louise Jaÿ, La Samaritaine was, up until its closure in 2005, one of Paris' four big department stores. Bought by the LVMH group at the turn of the millennium and the subject of a bitter preservationist battle in the years that followed, its 2019 reopening includes a luxury hotel, social housing and office space as well as a new department store. The project, awarded to the Pritzker Prize–winning Japanese firm Sanaa, preserves some 75% of the original art nouveau and art deco exterior.
Sidebar: Architectural Icons
- Eiffel Tower (Eiffel Tower & Western Paris)
- Louvre pyramid (Louvre & Les Halles)
- Centre Pompidou (Louvre & Les Halles)
Sidebar: Designer Rooftops
- Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris (The Islands)
- Galeries Lafayette (Champs-Élysées & Grands Boulevards)
- Fondation Louis Vuitton (Eiffel Tower & Western Paris)
Sidebar: Hôtel Drouat
A zany structure if ever there was one is auction house Hôtel Drouat. After a late-1970s surrealist facelift by architects Jean-Jacques Fernier and André Biro, the 19th-century Haussmann building was instantly hailed as a modern architectural gem.
Sidebar: Neighbour Project
Interesting and frightening were Le Corbusier’s plans for Paris that never left the drawing board. Plan Voisin (Neighbour Project; 1925) envisaged wide boulevards linking the Gare Montparnasse with the Seine and lined with skyscrapers. The project would have required bulldozing much of the Latin Quarter.
Sidebar: Vertical Gardens
A signature architectural feature of Paris is the vertical garden, or mur végétal (vegetation wall). Seeming to defy gravity, these gardens cover walls in chic boutique interiors, outside museums, within spas and elsewhere. The Seine-facing garden at the Musée du Quai Branly, by Patrick Blanc, is Paris’ most famous.
Sidebar: Iconic Apartments
The iconic apartment buildings that line the boulevards of central Paris, with their cream-coloured stone and curvy wrought-iron balconies, are the work of Baron Haussmann (1809–91), prefect of the Seine département between 1853 and 1870.
Sidebar: Architectural Museums
- Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (Eiffel Tower & Western Paris)
- Musée des Plans-Reliefs (St-Germain & Les Invalides)
- Pavillon de l'Arsenal (Le Marais, Ménilmontant & Belleville)
Whether attending a reading at fabled Latin Quarter bookshop Shakespeare & Company, browsing bookshelves in a wine bar in Le Marais or poring over the latest bande dessinée (comic strip) in shops dedicated to the genre, Parisians have a deep appreciation of the written word, and literature remains essential to their sense of identity. Couple this with the mass of modern literature inspired by the City of Light and Paris will never leave you short of a good read.
Paris does not figure largely in early-medieval French literature, although the misadventures of Pierre Abélard and Héloïse took place in the capital, as did their mutual correspondence, which ended only with Abélard's death.
François Villon, the finest poet of the Middle Ages, received the equivalent of a Master of Arts degree from the Sorbonne before he turned 20. Involved in a series of brawls, robberies and illicit escapades, ‘Master Villon’ (as he became known) was sentenced to be hanged in 1462, supposedly for stabbing a lawyer. However, the sentence was commuted to banishment from Paris for 10 years, and he disappeared forever. Villon left behind a body of poems charged with a highly personal lyricism, among them Ballade des Pendus (Ballad of the Hanged Men), in which he writes his own epitaph, and Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis, translated by the English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti as the ‘Ballad of Dead Ladies’.
The great landmarks of French Renaissance literature are the works of François Rabelais, Pierre de Ronsard (and other poets of the Renaissance group of poets known as La Pléiade) and Michel de Montaigne. The exuberant narratives of erstwhile monk Rabelais blend coarse humour with erudition in a vast oeuvre that seems to include every kind of person, occupation and jargon to be found in the France of the early 16th century. Rabelais' publisher, Étienne Dolet, was convicted of heresy and blasphemy in 1546, hanged and burned on place Maubert, 5e.
During the 17th century François de Malherbe, court poet under Henri IV, brought a new rigour to rhythm in literature. One of his better-known works is his sycophantic Ode (1600) to Marie de Médici. Transported by the perfection of Malherbe’s verses, Jean de la Fontaine went on to write his charming Fables (1668) in the manner of Aesop – though he fell afoul of the Académie Française (French Academy) in the process. A mood of classical tragedy permeates La Princesse de Clèves (1678), by Marie de la Fayette, widely regarded as the precursor to the modern character novel.
The literature of the 18th century is dominated by philosophers, among them Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Voltaire’s political writings, arguing that society is fundamentally opposed to nature, had a profound and lasting influence on the century, and he is buried in the Panthéon. Rousseau’s sensitivity to landscape and its moods anticipated romanticism, and the insistence on his own singularity in Les Confessions (1782) made it the first modern autobiography. He, too, lies in the Panthéon.
The 19th century produced poet and novelist Victor Hugo, who lived on place des Vosges before fleeing to the Channel Islands during the Second Empire. Les Misérables (1862) describes life among the poor of Paris in the early 19th century. Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame; 1831), a medieval romance and tragedy revolving around the life of the celebrated cathedral, made Hugo the key figure of French romanticism.
Other influential 19th-century novelists include Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), Honoré de Balzac, Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin (aka George Sand) and, of course, Alexandre Dumas, who wrote the swashbuckling adventures Le Comte de Monte Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo; 1844) and Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers; 1844).
In 1857 two landmarks of French literature were published: Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, and Les Fleurs du Mal, by Charles Baudelaire. Both writers were tried for the supposed immorality of their works. Flaubert won his case, and his novel was distributed without censorship. Baudelaire, who moonlighted as a translator in Paris, was obliged to cut half a dozen poems from his work and fined 300 francs.
The aim of Émile Zola, who came to Paris with his close friend, the artist Paul Cézanne, in 1858, was to transform novel-writing from an art to a science by the application of experimentation. His theory may now seem naive, but his work influenced most significant French writers of the late 19th century and is reflected in much 20th-century fiction as well. His novel Nana (1880) tells the decadent tale of a young woman who resorts to prostitution to survive the Paris of the Second Empire.
Symbolism & Surrealism
Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé created the symbolist movement, which strove to express states of mind rather than simply detail daily reality. Arthur Rimbaud, in addition to crowding an extraordinary amount of exotic travel into his 37 years and having a tempestuous sexual relationship with Verlaine, produced two enduring pieces of work: Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell; 1873) and Illuminations (1874). Verlaine died at 39 rue Descartes, 5e, in 1896.
Marcel Proust dominated the early 20th century with his seven-volume novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time; 1913–27), which explores the true meaning of past experience recovered from the unconscious by ‘involuntary memory’. In 1907 Proust moved from the family home near the av des Champs-Élysées to an apartment on bd Haussmann famous for its cork-lined bedroom (now in the Musée Carnavalet). André Gide found his voice in the celebration of gay sensuality and, later, left-wing politics. Les Faux-Monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters; 1925) exposes the hypocrisy to which people resort in order to fit in with others or deceive themselves.
André Breton wrote French surrealism's three manifestos, although the first use of the word ‘surrealist’ is attributed to the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a fellow traveller of surrealism killed in action in WWI. Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) enjoyed tweaking the nose of conventionally moral readers. Her best-known work is Gigi (1945), but far more interesting is Paris de Ma Fenêtre (Paris from My Window; 1944), dealing with the German occupation of Paris. Her view was from 9 rue de Beaujolais in the 1er, overlooking Jardin du Palais Royal.
After WWII, existentialism developed as a significant literary movement around Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, who worked and conversed in the cafes of bd St-Germain in St-German des Prés. All three stressed the importance of the writer’s political engagement. De Beauvoir, author of Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex; 1949), had a profound influence on feminist thinking. Camus’ novel L’Étranger (The Stranger; 1942) reveals that the absurd is the condition of modern man, who feels himself an outsider in his world.
In the late 1950s certain novelists began to look for new ways of organising narrative. The so-called nouveau roman (new novel) refers to the works of Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Boris Vian, Julien Gracq, Michel Butor and others. But these writers never formed a close-knit group, and their experiments took them in divergent directions.
In 1980 Marguerite Yourcenar, best known for her memorable historical novels including Mémoires d’Hadrien (Hadrian’s Memoirs; 1951), became the first woman elected to the Académie Française. Marguerite Duras came to the notice of a larger public in 1984 when she won the Prix Goncourt for L’Amant (The Lover).
Philippe Sollers, an editor at Tel Quel, a highbrow, left-wing, Paris-based review, was very influential in the 1960s and early '70s. His 1960s novels were highly experimental, but with Femmes (Women; 1983) he returned to a conventional narrative style. Another Tel Quel editor, Julia Kristeva, became known for her theoretical writings on literature and psychoanalysis but subsequently turned her hand to fiction: Les Samuraï (The Samurai; 1990), a fictionalised account of the heady days of Tel Quel, is an interesting document on Paris intelligentsia life.
Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault are other notable 1960s and '70s authors and philosophers. In the 1990s French writing focused in a nihilistic way on what France had lost as a nation (identity, international prestige etc), and never more so than in the work of controversial writer Michel Houellebecq, who rose to national prominence in 1998 with his Les Particules Élémentaires (Atomised). Houellebecq's most recent work is Soumission (Submission; 2015), a contentious political satire featuring some of France's real-life politicians in a fictionalised near-future setting.
Some of the best-known contemporary French writers include Jean Echenoz, Erik Orsenna, Marc Levy, Christine Angot – dubbed ‘la reine de l’autofiction’ (the queen of autobiography) – and comedian-dramatist Nelly Alard. Alard was acclaimed for the novel Moment d'un couple (Moment of a Couple; 2013), which was translated into English as Couple Mechanics in 2016. Author Yasmina Khadra is actually a man – a former colonel in the Algerian army who adopted his wife’s name as a nom de plume to prevent military censorship.
Delving into the mood and politics of the capital’s notable ethnic population is Faïza Guène, a French literary sensation who writes in an ‘urban slang’ style. A suburban Paris housing estate where thousands of immigrants live like sardines in five-storey blocks stretching for 1.5km is the setting for Kiffe Kiffe Demain and for Guène’s second (semi-autobiographical) novel, Du Rêve pour les Oufs (2006), published in English as Dreams from the Endz (2008). Her third novel, Les Gens du Balto (2008), published in English as Bar Balto (2011), is a series of colloquial first-person monologues by various characters who live on a street in a Parisian suburb. Guène's next work, Un Homme, ça ne pleure pas (2014), shifted to Nice in southern France.
Ex–French border guard turned author Romain Puértolas had an instant best-selling hit with his surreal, partly Paris-set 2013 novel L'Extraordinaire Voyage du Fakir Qui Était Resté Coincé Dans une Armoire Ikea (The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe), which won the Grand Prix Jules Verne in 2014. It was followed in 2015 by La Petite Fille Qui Avait Avalé un Nuage Grand Comme la Tour Eiffel (The Little Girl Who Swallowed a Cloud as Big as the Eiffel Tower) and the zany farce Re-vive l’Empereur (Re-live the Emperor), imagining the contemporary return of Napoléon Bonaparte. In 2017 he published Tout un Été Sans Facebook (A Summer Without Facebook), centred on a reading club.
French journalist, screenwriter and novelist Tatiana de Rosnay has a prolific output that includes the best-selling Sarah's Key (2007), her first work written in English, and A Paris Affair (2015).
Feature: Foreign Literature: Interwar Heyday
Foreigners have found inspiration in Paris since Charles Dickens used the city alongside London as the backdrop to A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. The heyday of Paris as a literary setting, however, was the interwar period.
Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and the posthumous A Moveable Feast (1964) portray bohemian life in Paris between the wars. So many vignettes in the latter – dissing Ford Madox Ford in a cafe, ‘sizing up’ F Scott Fitzgerald in a toilet in the Latin Quarter, and overhearing Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B Toklas, bitchin’ at one another from the sitting room of their salon near the Jardin du Luxembourg – are classic and très parisien.
Gertrude Stein let her hair down by assuming her lover’s identity in The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, a fascinating account of the author’s many years in Paris, her salon on rue de Fleurus, 6e, and her friendships with Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Hemingway and others.
Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) is George Orwell’s account of the time he spent working as a plongeur (dishwasher) in Paris and living with tramps in the city in the 1930s. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) and Quiet Days in Clichy (1956) are steamy novels set partly in the French capital. Then there’s Anaïs Nin’s voluminous diaries and fiction; her published correspondence with Miller is particularly evocative of 1930s Paris.
Feature: Prize-Winning Reads
Ensure your Paris reading is up to the minute by plumping for the latest winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. Awarded annually since 1903, it tends to reflect topical issues in France. In 2009 Franco-Senegalese writer Marie NDiaye became the first black woman to win the award, with Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Strong Women; 2012); she burst onto the literary scene aged 21 with Comédie Classique (1988), a 200-page novel comprising just one single sentence. In 2017 the prize went to Eric Vuillard for L'Ordre du Jour (Agenda) about Hitler's rise, based on historical documents and photographs.
France’s other big literary award is the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française, around since 1918. Les Onze by French novelist Pierre Michon (2009 winner), published in English as The Eleven (2013), portrays a humble Parisian painter who decorates the homes of Louis XIV’s mistresses and goes on to create a Mona Lisa–type masterpiece. The 2017 prize was won by France's former ambassador to Malta, Daniel Rondeau, for Mécaniques du Chaos (Mechanics of Chaos), about terrorism, art and human trafficking.
Sidebar: Literary Sights
- Maison de Victor Hugo (Le Marais, Ménilmontant & Belleville)
- Maison de Balzac (Eiffel Tower & Western Paris)
- Musée de la Vie Romantique (Montmartre & Northern Paris)
Sidebar: Story of O
Histoire d’O (Story of O; 1954), Dominique Aury’s erotic, sadomasochistic novel written under a pseudonym, has sold more copies outside France than any other contemporary French novel. Most believed it to be the work of a man; it was only 40 years after publication that the author revealed her identity.
Sidebar: Literary Cafes
- Café de Flore (St-Germain & Les Invalides)
- Les Deux Magots (St-Germain & Les Invalides)
- La Belle Hortense (Le Marais, Ménilmontant & Belleville)
Sidebar: The Age of Reason
L’Âge de Raison (The Age of Reason; 1945), the first volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s trilogy Les Chemins de la Liberté (The Roads to Freedom), is a superb Parisian novel. His subsequent volumes recall Paris immediately before and during WWII.
In France the bande dessinée (comic strip) has a cult following – Paris has a museum, Art Ludique – Le Musée, dedicated to the neuvième art ('ninth art'). The genre was originally for children, but comic strips for adults gained popularity in 1959 with René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's now-iconic Astérix series.
Sidebar: Marc Levy
One of France’s top-selling writers is Parisian Marc Levy. His first novel was filmed as 2005's Just Like Heaven. His latest, La Dernière des Stanfield (Stanfield's Last; 2017), is a multigenerational mystery.
While art in Paris today means anything and everything – bold installations in the metro, digital art projections both inside and outside exhibition spaces, mechanical sculptures, monumental wall frescoes, tiled Space Invader tags and other gregarious street art, including in dedicated street-art museums – the city’s rich art heritage has its roots firmly embedded in the traditional genres of painting and sculpture.
Baroque to Neoclassicism
According to philosopher Voltaire, French painting proper began with baroque painter Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), the greatest representative of 17th-century classicism, who frequently set scenes from ancient Rome, classical mythology and the Bible in ordered landscapes bathed in golden light.
In the field of sculpture, extravagant and monumental tombs had been commissioned by the nobility from the 14th century, and in Renaissance Paris Pierre Bontemps (c 1507–68) decorated the beautiful tomb of François I at Basilique de St-Denis, and Jean Goujon (c 1510–67) created the Fontaine des Innocents near the Forum des Halles. No sculpture better evokes baroque than the magnificent Horses of Marly by Guillaume Coustou (1677–1746), at the entrance to the av des Champs-Élysées.
Modern still life pops up with Jean-Baptiste Chardin (1699–1779), who brought the humbler domesticity of the Dutch masters to French art. In 1785 neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) wooed the public with his vast portraits with clear republican messages. A virtual dictator in matters of art, he advocated a precise, severe classicism.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), David’s most gifted pupil in Paris, continued the neoclassical tradition. His historical pictures (eg Oedipus and the Sphinx, the 1808 version of which is in the Louvre) are now regarded as inferior to his portraits.
One of the Louvre's most gripping paintings, The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), hovers on the threshold of romanticism; if Géricault had not died early (aged 33), he probably would have become a leader of the movement, along with his friend Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863; find him in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise), best known for his masterpiece commemorating the July Revolution of 1830, Liberty Leading the People.
While romantics revamped the subject picture, the Barbizon School effected a parallel transformation of landscape painting. The school derived its name from a village near the Forêt de Fontainebleau where Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796–1875) and Jean-François Millet (1814–75) painted in the open air. The son of a Norman peasant farmer, Millet took many of his subjects from peasant life; his L’Angélus (The Angelus; 1857) is one of the best-known French paintings from this period. View it in the Musée d’Orsay.
In sculpture, the work of Paris-born Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) overcame the conflict between neoclassicism and romanticism. One of Rodin’s most gifted pupils was his lover Camille Claudel (1864–1943), whose work can be seen with Rodin's in the Musée Rodin.
The realists were all about social commentary: Millet anticipated the realist program of Gustave Courbet (1819–77), a prominent member of the Paris Commune whose paintings depicted the drudgery and dignity of working-class lives. In 1850 he broke new ground with A Burial at Ornans (in the Musée d’Orsay), painted on a canvas of monumental size reserved until then exclusively for historical paintings.
Édouard Manet (1832–83) used realism to depict the Parisian middle classes, yet he included in his pictures numerous references to the Old Masters. His Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia were both scandalous, largely because they broke with the traditional treatment of their subject matter. He was a pivotal figure in the transition from realism to impressionism.
One of the best sculptors of this period was François Rude (1784–1855), creator of the relief on the Arc de Triomphe and several pieces in the Musée d’Orsay. By the mid-19th century, memorial statues in public places had replaced sculpted tombs, making such statues all the rage.
Sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827–75) began as a romantic, but his work in Paris – such as The Dance on the Palais Garnier and his fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg – recalls the gaiety and flamboyance of the baroque era.
Paris' Musée d’Orsay is the crown jewel of impressionism. Initially a term of derision, 'impressionism' was taken from the title of an 1874 experimental painting, Impression: Soleil Levant (Impression: Sunrise) by Claude Monet (1840–1926). Monet was the leading figure of the school, and a visit to the Musée d’Orsay unveils a host of other members, among them Alfred Sisley (1839–99), Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) and Berthe Morisot (1841–95). The impressionists’ main aim was to capture the effects of fleeting light, painting almost universally in the open air – and light came to dominate the content of their painting.
Edgar Degas (1834–1917), buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre, was a fellow traveller of the impressionists, but he preferred painting cafe life (Absinthe) and in ballet studios (The Dance Class) over the great outdoors – several beautiful examples hang in the Musée d’Orsay.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) was a great admirer of Degas but chose subjects one or two notches less salubrious: people in the bistros, brothels and music halls of Montmartre (eg Au Moulin Rouge). He is best known for his posters and lithographs, in which the distortion of the figures is both satirical and decorative.
Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) is celebrated for his still lifes and landscapes depicting southern France, though he spent many years in Paris after breaking with the impressionists. The name of Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) immediately conjures up studies of Tahitian and Breton women. Both Cézanne and Gauguin were postimpressionists, a catch-all term for the diverse styles that flowed from impressionism.
Pointillism & Symbolism
Pointillism was a technique developed by Georges Seurat (1859–91), who applied paint in small dots or uniform brush strokes of unmixed colour to produce fine ‘mosaics’ of warm and cool tones. His tableaux Une Baignade, Asnières (Bathers at Asnières) is a perfect example.
Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) was a contemporary of the postimpressionists, but his ‘naive’ art was unaffected by them. His dreamlike pictures of the Paris suburbs and of jungle and desert scenes (eg The Snake Charmer) – in the Musée d’Orsay – have influenced art right up to this century. The eerie treatment of mythological subjects by Gustave Moreau (1826–98) can be seen in the artist's studio, now within the Musée Gustave-Moreau in the 9e.
Twentieth-century French painting is characterised by a bewildering diversity of styles, including fauvism, named after the slur of a critic who compared the exhibitors at the 1905 Salon d’Automne (Autumn Salon) in Paris with fauves (wild animals) because of their wild brushstrokes and radical use of intensely bright colours. Among these ‘beastly’ painters was Henri Matisse (1869–1954).
Cubism was launched in 1907 with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Spanish prodigy Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). Cubism, as developed by Picasso, Georges Braque (1882–1963) and Juan Gris (1887–1927), deconstructed the subject into a system of intersecting planes and presented various aspects simultaneously.
In the 1920s and ’30s the École de Paris (School of Paris) was formed by a group of expressionists, mostly foreign born.
Capturing the rebellious, iconoclastic spirit of Dadaism – a Swiss-born literary and artistic movement of revolt – is Mona Lisa, by Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), complete with moustache and goatee. In 1922 German Dadaist Max Ernst (1891–1976) moved to Paris and worked on surrealism, a Dada offshoot that flourished between the wars. Drawing on the theories of Sigmund Freud, surrealism attempted to reunite the conscious and unconscious realms, to permeate everyday life with fantasies and dreams. The most influential of this style in Paris was Spanish-born artist Salvador Dalí (1904–89), who arrived in the French capital in 1929 and painted some of his most seminal works while residing here. To see his work, visit the Dalí Espace Montmartre.
One of the most influential pre-WWII sculptors to emerge in Paris was Romanian-born Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957); view his work at the Atelier Brancusi. Two other Paris-busy sculptors each have a museum devoted to their work: Ossip Zadkine (1890–1967) and Antoine Bourdelle (1861–1929).
WWII ended Paris’ role as the world’s artistic capital. Many artists left during the occupation, and though some returned after the war, the city never regained its old magnetism.
But art endured. Conceptual artist Daniel Buren (b 1938) reduced his painting to a signature series of vertical 8.7cm-wide stripes that he applies to every surface imaginable – white-marble columns in the courtyard of Paris’ Palais Royal included. Partner-in-crime Michel Parmentier (1938–2000) insisted on monochrome painting – blue in 1966, grey in 1967 and red in 1968.
From the turn of the 21st century, artists increasingly turned to the minutiae of daily urban life to express social and political angst, using new mediums to let rip.
Paris-born conceptual artist Sophie Calle (b 1953) brazenly exposes her private life in public with eye-catching installations, such as 107 women reading and commenting on an email she received from her French lover, dumping her.
Street art took off in Paris thanks to Blek le Rat (Xavier Prou; b 1951), whose pioneering stencilled black rats across the city inspired artists such as Banksy, as well as French artist Levalet (Charles Leval; b 1988), who pastes lifelike, site-specific images in India ink on craft paper onto walls. Today, street art remains huge; in addition to tiled Space Invader tags and vast murals covering entire high-rise buildings, graffitied streets like Belleville's rue Dénoyez and art-collective canvases like rue Oberkampf's Le MUR, there are now two street-art museums in the city and companies running dedicated guided tours.
Digital art is also gaining ground: arts centre EP7 screens projections onto its façade, and L'Atelier des Lumières is Paris' first digital-art museum; both opened in 2018.
Feature: Metro Art
Art adorns many of the stations of the city's world-famous Métropolitain. Art themes often relate to the quartier (neighbourhood) or the name of the station. Montparnasse Bienvenüe, for example, evokes the creation of the metro – it was an engineer named Fulgence Bienvenüe (1852–1936) who oversaw the building of the first 91km from 1886; while Carrefour Pleyel, named in honour of the 18th-century composer and piano-maker Ignace Joseph Pleyel (1757–1831), focuses on classical music.
The following is just a sample of the most interesting stations from an artistic perspective.
- Abbesses (line 12 metro entrance) The noodle-like pale-green metalwork and glass canopy of the station entrance is one of the finest examples of the work of Hector Guimard (1867–1942), the celebrated French art nouveau architect whose signature style once graced most metro stations. For a complete list of the metro stations that retain édicules (shrine-like entranceways) designed by Guimard, see www.parisinconnu.com.
- Assemblée Nationale (line 12 platform) Gigantic posters of silhouettes in red, white and blue by artist Jean-Charles Blais (b 1956) represent the MPs currently sitting in parliament.
- Bastille (line 5 platform) A 180-sq-metre ceramic fresco features scenes taken from newspaper engravings published during the Revolution, with illustrations of the destruction of the infamous prison.
- Chaussée d’Antin-Lafayette (line 7 platform) Large allegorical painting on the vaulted ceiling recalls the Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834) and his role as general in the American Revolution.
- Cluny–La Sorbonne (line 10 platform) A large ceramic mosaic replicates the signatures of intellectuals, artists and scientists from the Latin Quarter through history, including Molière (1622–73), Rabelais (c 1483–1553) and Robespierre (1758–96).
- Concorde (line 12 platform) What looks like children’s building blocks in white-and-blue ceramic on the walls of the station are 45,000 tiles that spell out the text of the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), the document setting forth the principles of the French Revolution.
- Palais Royal–Musée du Louvre (line 1 metro entrance) The zany entrance on place du Palais by Jean-Michel Othoniel (b 1964) is composed of two crown-shaped cupolas (one representing the day, the other night) consisting of 800 red, blue, amber and violet glass balls threaded on an aluminium structure. Sublime.
Sidebar: Painting Meccas
- Musée du Louvre (Louvre & Les Halles)
- Musée d’Orsay (St-Germain & Les Invalides)
- Centre Pompidou (Louvre & Les Halles)
- Musée Picasso (Le Marais, Ménilmontant & Belleville)
Sidebar: Sculpture Studios
- Musée Rodin (St-Germain & Les Invalides)
- Musée Atelier Zadkine (St-Germain & Les Invalides)
- Atelier Brancusi (Louvre & Les Halles)
- Musée Bourdelle (Montparnasse & Southern Paris)
Sidebar: César Baldaccini
César Baldaccini (1921–98), known simply as César, used iron and scrap metal to create imaginary insects and animals, later graduating to pliable plastics. Among his best-known works are the Centaur statue in the 6e and the statuette handed to actors at the Césars (French cinema’s equivalent of the Oscars).
Sidebar: Photography Exhibitions
- Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Le Marais, Ménilmontant & Belleville)
- Jeu de Paume (Louvre & Les Halles)
- Le Bal (Montmartre & Northern Paris)
Sidebar: Found Objects
Both Georges Braque and Picasso experimented with sculpture and, in the spirit of Dada, Marcel Duchamp exhibited ‘found objects’, one of which was a urinal, which he mounted, signed and dubbed Fountain in 1917.
Sidebar: Art Everywhere
A bill in 1936 provided for ‘the creation of monumental decorations in public buildings’ by allotting 1% of building costs to art. The concept mushroomed half a century later (with Daniel Buren) and now there’s artwork everywhere: in the Jardin des Tuileries, La Défense, Parc de la Villette, the metro…
Sidebar: Exhibition Listings
Keep abreast of current exhibitions, events and happenings with Paris' contemporary art and design magazine Slash (https://slash-paris.com), also on Twitter and Facebook.
Paris is one of the world's most cinematic cities. The French capital has produced a bevy of blockbuster film-makers and stars and is the filming location of countless box-office hits by both home-grown and foreign directors. Fabulous experiences for film buffs range from exploring behind the scenes at an art deco cinema to catching a classic retrospective in the Latin Quarter's many cinemas, or following in the footsteps of iconic screen heroine Amélie Poulain through the streets of Montmartre.
Movie-Makers & Stars
French cinema hasn't looked back since 2012, when The Artist (2011), a silent B&W romantic comedy set in 1920s Hollywood, won seven BAFTAs and five Oscars to become the most awarded film in French cinema history. Best Director went to Parisian Michel Hazanavicius (b 1967) and Best Original Score went to French composer-pianist Ludovic Bource (b 1970). Best Actor was awarded to charismatic Jean Dujardin (b 1972), who started with one-man shows in Paris bars and cabarets, and made his name with roles as varied as surfer Brice waiting for his wave in Brice de Nice (2005), James Bond in OSS 117: Le Caire, Nid d’Espions (OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies; 2006), the sexiest cowboy around in Lucky Luke (2009) and a WWII French soldier in George Clooney's The Monuments Men (2014).
Another French blockbuster packed with Parisian talent is Anne Fontaine’s Coco Avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel; 2009). The movie tells the compelling life story of orphan-turned-fashion-designer Coco Chanel, played by Audrey Tautou (b 1976), the waifish French actress who conquered stardom with her role as Montmartre cafe waitress Amélie in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amélie; 2001), an earlier Paris classic.
One of the most successful French-language films ever is Intouchables (Untouchable; 2011). Directed by Parisian Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, the comic drama is about a billionaire quadriplegic and his live-in Senegalese carer in Paris. The film scooped Best Foreign Film at both the Golden Globes and the BAFTA Awards in 2013.
French-produced Taken 2 (2012) was directed by Olivier Megaton (b 1965), a graffiti artist from the Parisian suburbs before turning his creative hand to film-making – with great success.
France’s leading lady is Parisian Marion Cotillard (b 1975), the first French woman since 1959 to win an Oscar, for her role as Édith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s La Môme (La Vie en Rose; 2007). The versatile actress went on to play an amputee in art film De Rouille et d'Os (Rust and Bone; 2012) by Parisian director Jacques Audiard (b 1952). In Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night; 2014), Cotillard plays an employee in a solar-panel factory who learns she will lose her job if her co-workers don't each sacrifice €1000 bonuses offered to them. Recent roles include 2017's Rock'n Roll, as the partner of Guillaume Canet (her real-life partner), who plays an actor told by his young co-star that he's no longer 'rock 'n' roll' enough to sell films any more. and in Les Fantômes d'Ismaël (Ismael's Ghosts) as a wife who returns from a 20-year disappearance, and 2018's Gueule d'Ange (Angel Face), about a mother who abandons her child.
Animated films have enjoyed huge success; 2015's Avril et de Monde Truque (April and the Extraordinary World) depicts a fictitious world in 1941 Paris under the rule of Napoléon V in the steam age. Marion Cotillard provides the voice of Avril, who, with her talking cat, searches for her missing scientist parents.
Directed by Pascale Ferrari (b 1960), Bird People (2014) takes place in and around a hotel at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport. Look out, too, for Julia Ducournau (b 1983), director of Raw (2016), about a vegetarian veterinary student who develops a taste for flesh.
Paris is the perfect cinematic setting and a natural movie star: look no further than timeless French classics Hôtel du Nord (1938), set along the Canal St-Martin, and Les Enfants du Paradis (1946), set in 1840s Paris, both directed by Parisian film-maker Marcel Carné (1906–96).
New Wave film director Jean-Luc Godard followed his B&W celebration of Paris in À Bout de Souffle (Breathless; 1959) with Bande à Parte (Band of Outsiders; 1964), an entertaining gangster film with marvellous scenes in the Louvre.
For decades ‘Most Watched French Film’ kudos went to La Grand Vadrouille (The Great Ramble; 1966), a French comedy in which five British airmen are shot down over German-occupied France in 1942. One is catapulted into Paris’ Bois de Vincennes zoo, another into the orchestra pit of Paris' opera house, and so the comic tale unfurls.
In the 1990s Juliette Binoche (b 1964) leapt to fame after diving into the shimmering, bright-turquoise water of Paris' art-deco swimming pool the Piscine de Pontoise in the 5e, in Bleu (Blue; 1993), the first in Krzysztof Kieślowski's Trois Couleurs (Three Colours) trilogy. A decade later Binoche wooed cinema-goers with her role as a grieving mother in Paris, je t'aime (Paris, I Love You; 2006), a staggering work comprising 18 short films – each set in a different Parisian arrondissement.
Honoured with the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008, Laurent Cantet’s Entre Les Murs (The Class; 2008) portrays a year in the school life of pupils and teachers in a Parisian suburb. Based on the autobiographical novel of teacher François Begaudeau, the documentary-drama is a brilliant reflection of contemporary multi-ethnic society.
The city has always been popular with foreign film directors, whatever their genre: Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972) stars Marlon Brando as a grief-stricken American. Roman Polanski's Frantic (1988) is a stylish thriller set in and around the city's seedier quarters that sees Harrison Ford enlist the help of a feisty Emmanuelle Seigner to help him track down his kidnapped wife. Doug Liman's fast-moving action flick The Bourne Identity (2002) features Matt Damon as an amnesiac government-agent-turned-target in a gripping story that twists and turns against a fabulous backdrop of Paris. Woody Allen's Everybody Says I love You (1996) unfolded on the Left Bank's quai de la Tournelle, while Midnight in Paris (2011) evoked the city, along with Hemingway's 'Lost Generation', in the 1920s. Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning children's film Hugo (2011) paid tribute to cinema and Parisian film pioneer Georges Méliès through the remarkable adventure of an orphan boy in the 1930s who tends the clocks at a Paris train station. The crazed antics of Gargamel et al in American movie Smurfs 2 (2013) were shot on location in Paris at Cathédrale de Notre Dame.
The world’s first paying-public film screening is held in Paris’ Grand Café on bd des Capucines, 9e, in December 1895 by the Lumière brothers, inventors of ‘moving pictures’.
Paris magician-turned-film-maker Georges Méliès (1861–1938) creates the first science-fiction film with the silent Le Voyage dans la Lune (The Trip to the Moon; 1902).
French film flourishes. Sound ushers in René Clair’s (1898–1981) world of fantasy and satirical surrealism. Watch Abel Gance’s antiwar blockbuster J’Accuse! (I Accuse!; 1919), filmed on actual WWI battlefields.
WWI inspires a new realism: portraits of ordinary lives dominate film. Watch La Grande Illusion (The Great Illusion; 1937), based on the trench-warfare experience of director Jean Renoir.
Surrealists eschew realism. Watch Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast; 1946) and Orphée (Orpheus; 1950). WWII saps the film industry of both talent and money.
Nouvelle Vague (New Wave): small budgets, no stars and real-life subject matter produce uniquely personal films. Watch Jean-Luc Godard’s carefree, B&W celebration of Paris À Bout de Souffle (Breathless; 1959).
France – land of romance: take in Claude Lelouch’s Un Homme et une Femme (A Man and a Woman; 1966) and Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; 1964).
Big-name stars, slick production values and nostalgia: generous state subsidies see film-makers switch to costume dramas and comedies in the face of growing competition from the USA.
Box-office hits starring France’s best-known, biggest-nosed actor, Gérard Depardieu, win over huge audiences in France and abroad. See Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) and Astérix et Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre (2002).
Renaissance: Parisian philanthrope Amélie is the subject of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amelie; 2001), the first of a string of French-made films to succeed globally.
Sidebar: Cinematic Trips
- Forum des Images (Louvre & Les Halles)
- Cinémathèque Française (Bastille & Eastern Paris)
- Le Grand Rex (Champs-Élysées & Grands Boulevards)
- Art Ludique – Le Musée (Montparnasse & Southern Paris)
From organ recitals amid Gothic architectural splendour to a legendary jazz scene, stirring chansons, ground-breaking electronica, award-winning world music and some of the world’s best rap, music is embedded deep in the Parisian soul. To understand the capital’s musical heritage is to enrich your experience of a city where talented musicians have to audition even to perform in the metro.
Jazz & French Chansons
Paris was introduced to jazz during WWI, when African-American soldiers from US troops stationed in France came together to play ragtime and jazz in the city's music halls, and really took off during the 1920s, when it attracted US performers such as Josephine Baker who were fleeing segregation. Many returned during the Great Depression, which gave rise to French jazz: Parisian jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli (1908–97) and three-fingered Roma guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910–53) jammed together in sessions promoted by the Hot Club of France quintet. Claude Luter and his Dixieland band were hip in the 1950s.
The chanson française, a tradition dating from troubadours in the Middle Ages, was eclipsed by the music halls of the early 20th century but was revived in the 1930s by Édith Piaf (1915–63) and Charles Trenet (1913–2001), followed by 'France's Frank Sinatra', Charles Aznavour (1924–2018). In the 1950s Left Bank cabarets nurtured singers like Léo Ferré (1916–63), Georges Brassens (1921–81), Claude Nougaro (1929–2004), Jacques Brel (1929–78), Barbara (1930–97) and the very sexy, very Parisian Serge Gainsbourg (1928–91). The genre was revived in the new millennium as la nouvelle chanson française by performers like Vincent Delerm (b 1976), Bénabar (b 1969), Jeanne Cherhal (b 1978), Camille (b 1978) and Zaz (Isabelle Geffroy; b 1980), who mix jazz, soul, acoustic and traditional chansons.
Rock & Pop
French pop has come a long way since the yéyé (imitative rock) days of the 1960s as sung by Johnny Hallyday. The distinctive M is the son of singer Louis Chédid; Arthur H is the progeny of pop-rock musician Jacques Higelin; and Thomas Dutronc is the offspring of 1960s idols Jacques and Françoise Hardy. Serge Gainsbourg's daughter with Jane Birkin, songwriter-singer and actress Charlotte (b 1971), made her musical debut in 1984 with the single 'Lemon Incest' and – several albums later – released a cover version of the song 'Hey Joe' as soundtrack to the film Nymphomaniac (2013), in which she also starred.
Noir Désir was the sound of French rock until its lead vocalist, Bertrand Cantat (b 1964), was imprisoned in 2003 for the murder of his girlfriend. Following his early release from prison in 2007, the controversial singer later formed the band Détroit with instrumentalist Pascal Humbert. Détroit's top-selling first album Horizons (2013) was followed by the 2014 album La Cigale.
Indie rock band Phoenix, from Versailles, headlines festivals in the US and UK. Lead singer Thomas Mars (b 1976), his schoolmate Chris Mazzalai (guitar), his brother Laurent Brancowitz (guitar and keyboards) and Deck d'Arcy (keyboards and brass) have six hugely successful albums under their belt, including 2017's Ti Amo.
French psych-punk rock band La Femme debuted with their award-winning album Psycho Tropical Berlin in 2013; their latest offering is Mystère (2016).
Nosfell is one of France's most creative and intense musicians, who sings in his own invented language called 'le klokobetz'. His third album, Armour Massif (2014), opens and closes in 'le klokobetz' but otherwise woos listeners with powerful French love lyrics.
In 2011 Sylvie Hoarau and Aurélie Saada formed the indie folk duo Brigitte; their debut album Et vous, tu m'aimes? went platinum in France. Their 2014 album A bouche que veux-tu also achieved widespread success, as did 2017's Nues.
Internationally successful modern pop stars include singer-songwriter Chris (previously Christine and the Queens; aka Héloïse Letissier; b 1988), who released her first album, Chaleur Humaine, in 2014 and most recently Chris in 2018, and Jain (Jeanne Galice; b 1992), whose debut album, Zanaka, was released in 2015, followed by Souldier in 2018.
Paris does dance music very well, computer-enhanced Chicago blues and Detroit techno often being mixed with 1960s lounge music and vintage tracks from the likes of Gainsbourg and Brassens to create a distinctly urban and highly portable sound.
Globally successful bands such as Daft Punk and Justice head up the scene. Daft Punk, originally from Versailles, adapts first-wave acid house and techno to its younger roots in pop and indie rock. Its debut album, Homework (1997), fused disco, house funk and techno, while Random Access Memories (2013) boldly ditched computer-generated sound for a strong disco beat played by session musicians.
Electronica band Justice (Gaspard Michel Andre Augé and Xavier de Rosnay), raved about for their rock and indie influences, burst onto the dance scene in 2007 with a debut album that used the band's signature crucifix as its title. Justice's more recent works include live album Access All Arenas (2013) and Woman (2016). Electronica duo from Versailles AIR (an acronym for ‘Amour, Imagination, Rêve’, meaning ‘Love, Imagination, Dream’) is another internationally renowned band.
David Guetta, Laurent Garnier, Martin Solveig and Bob Sinclair (aka Christophe Le Friant, originally nicknamed 'Chris the French Kiss') are top Parisian electronica producers and DJs who travel the international circuit.
Breakbot (Thibaut Berland; b 1981) released his first album in 2012 and gained a rapid following for his remixes. His 2016-released album Still Waters includes the track 'Star Tripper', included in Disney's Star Wars–themed music album Star Wars Headspace.
Paris' world beat is strong, encompassing Algerian raï (artists include Cheb Khaled, Natacha Atlas, Jamel, Cheb Mami), Senegalese mbalax (Youssou N’Dour), West Indian zouk (Kassav’, Zouk Machine) and more. In the late 1980s bands Mano Negra and Les Négresses Vertes combined many of these elements with brilliant results, as did Manu Chao (b 1961; formerly frontman for Mano Negra), the Paris-born son of Spanish parents.
Magic System from Côte d’Ivoire popularised zouglou (a kind of West African rap and dance music) with its album Premier Gaou, and Congolese Koffi Olomide (b 1956) still packs the halls. Also try to catch Franco-Algerian DJ-turned-singer Rachid Taha, whose music mixes Arab and Western musical styles with lyrics in English, Berber and French.
Paris-born Franco-Congolese rapper, slam poet and three-time Victoire de la Musique award winner Abd al Malik has helped cement France’s reputation in world music. His albums Gibraltar (2006), Dante (2008) and Château Rouge (2010) are classics; look out for his popular 2015 album, Scarifications.
France is known for its rap, an original 1990s sound spearheaded by Senegal-born, Paris-reared rapper MC Solaar and Suprême NTM (NTM being an acronym for a French expression far too offensive to print). Most big-name rappers are French 20-somethings of Arabic or African origin whose prime preoccupation is the frustrations and fury of fed-up immigrants in the French suburbs. Take hot-shot rapper Disiz La Peste (b 1978), born in Amiens to a Senegalese father and a Belgian mother: his third album, Histoires Extra-Ordinaires d’un Jeune de Banlieue (The Extraordinary Stories of a Youth in the Suburbs; 2005), portrayed just what its title suggested, as did his ‘last’ album Disiz the End (2009), after which he morphed into Peter Punk and created a very different rock-punk-electro sound. In 2011 he returned as rap artist Disiz La Peste, successfully releasing the album Lucide in 2012 and its sequel, Trans-Lucide – with an opening track entitled 'Fuck les problèmes' – in 2014. In 2015 Disiz released the album Rap Machine and in 2017, Pacifique.
Paris-formed duo CocoRosie released their most recent single, Smoke 'em Out, in 2017.
French baroque music influenced European musical output in the 17th and 18th centuries. French musical luminaries – Charles Gounod (1818–93), César Franck (1822–90) and Carmen creator Georges Bizet (1838–75) among them – were prolific in the 19th century. Modern orchestration was founded by French romantic Hector Berlioz (1803–69). He demanded gargantuan forces: his ideal orchestra included 142 stringed instruments (four of which are tuned an octave below the double basses), 30 grand pianos and 30 harps.
Claude Debussy (1862–1918) revolutionised classical music with Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn), creating a light, almost Asian musical impressionism. Impressionist comrade Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) peppered his work with sensuousness and tonal colour.
Sidebar: Top Five Albums
- Paris, Zaz
- Moon Safari, AIR
- Dante, Abd al Malik
- Bankrupt, Phoenix
- Paris by Night, Bob Sinclair
Sidebar: Musical Pilgrimages
- Cimetière du Montparnasse (Montparnasse & Southern Paris)
- Cimetière du Père Lachaise (Le Marais, Ménilmontant & Belleville)
- Musée de Édith Piaf ( Le Marais, Ménilmontant & Belleville)