An American in Paris (1951)

“Back home everyone said I didn’t have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here but it sounds better in French.”

‘An American in Paris’, directed by Vincente Minnelli in 1951, is my first foray into Hollywood musicals. It tells the story of three friends in Paris, two ex-pat Americans, Jerry and Adam (played by Gene Kelly and Oscar Levant) and one local, Henri (played by Georges Guétary), and their affairs with various women, most notably the enigmatic Lise Bouvier, played by Leslie Caron. It’s a simple story that revolves around a love triangle between Jerry, Henri and Lise and ends with Henri recognising that Jerry and Lise are meant to be and sacrificing himself. What propels the film along though is the Gershwin soundtrack and the mesmerising dance sequences. Kelly’s way of dominating the frame and his physicality, enhanced by his costumes, keeps him as the centre of attention. These dance sequences give the movie a kinetic energy and act more than merely decoration. Without them, the three male characters would be unpleasant and self-centred (their actions and their treatment of the women in their lives still make them this), but the dancing and singing masks this with an exuberant abandon. It is also a film as much about Paris and its Americanised cultural rebirth following the Second World War as about the love affairs. The final dance sequence, a day-dream by Jerry as he mourns the loss of Lise, is a celebration of Paris’s history and art and an extended and elaborate marriage of French culture with Hollywood excess. Minnelli’s film is witty, pacey and beautifully shot, but it is Kelly’s skill and seemingly effortless dexterity that elevates it to greatness.

Would I recommend it? Yes – tricky to think of a double bill with the other films on my list, but ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is upcoming. Maybe watch with ‘Les Demoiselles de Rochefort’ to see a homage of this French-American collaboration.


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