Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

Believe it or not, this film is a sophisticated satire. Although you would be forgiven for not realising it. 

Starring Audrey Hepburn and William Holden, with cameos from Noel Coward, Tony Curtis and Marlene Dietrich, it plays like a romantic farce.

Gabrielle Simpson (Hepburn) is a typist sent to the hotel room of acclaimed screenwriter Richard Benson (Holden) to type up the pages of his latest masterpiece. The problem is that he hasn’t started writing it yet and only has three days to get it written and delivered to the producer.

George Axelrod (Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Seven Year Itch, The Manchurian Candidate) penned the screenplay and it was directed by Richard Quine (Sex And The Single Girl, How To Murder Your Wife).

The key to understanding the genius of this film, comes with understanding the changes Hollywood was going through at the time. So here is a brief history of the Classical Hollywood era.

When Hollywood started making films, the rating system that we are all familiar with did not exist. There was censorship or sense of filtering audiences by a film’s content. By the end of the 1920s, Hollywood was getting a reputation as a hotbed of sin and debauchery. Extra-marital affairs were rife and well recorded in the national and international press and there were even a couple of high profile rapes and murders.

In an attempt to restore the at least the appearance of a moral code, the studios hired Presbyterian Elder William Hays who, in 1930, brought out the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC also known as the Hays Code). The MPPC laid out a series of rule that filmmakers had to abide by, including banning the “use of profanity”, “ridicule of the clergy” and “sex relationships between white and black races”, and cautioning “special care” around “sympathy for criminals”, “men and women in bed together” and “the institution of marriage”. These rules applied to all American filmmaking until 1968 when the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system was put in place, however from the 1950s onwards American filmmakers pushed back against these restrictions.

By the end of 1950s a new style of filmmaking was coming out of Europe, christened French New Wave. Directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Agnes Varda took a free-form approach to filmmaking, seeing it as a form of artistic expression rather than commercial storytelling. This flew very much in the face of Hollywood’s ethos, which was (and still is) very much the movie “Business”.

This is the period of change that Axelrod was writing in, and that he tapped into when writing this clever little film. His characters write a screenplay that not only jumps from genre to genre but pushes and pulls at the MPPC as well as poking fun at French New Wave.

In a scene within the fictitious film that takes place in the bedroom, Benson comments on the risqué nature of the scene. Miss Simpson responds “You might take that view, but I believe they are playing Parcheesi”, gently prodding the MPPC’s allowances of insinuation. Also within the film within a film, Gaby gets caught up with a French New Wave actor (played by Tony Curtis) who’s involved in a fictitious film about Bastille Day called No Dancing In The Streets because “in this version it, like, rains”.

So watch this film, but when you do, look beyond the farcical romantic comedy and try to see the brilliantly executed satire that lies beneath.

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