Some films step out of the confines of their screenplays and take on the spirit of their location. Most of these films were specifically written for these contexts while some merely assimilated the setting into their fibre. Granted every film has a location, but not every film showcases the spirit of that location. This is a brief analysis of 8 films where the directors not only embody the spirit of the place but celebrate and to some extent, exaggerate the setting; rendering the city a protagonist in the picture.
8. Cannes – To Catch A Thief (1955)
In light of the Cannes Film Festival, it is fitting that we give this Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece a nod. In this romantic crime drama we follow retired cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant) as he tries to clear his name, while seducing the beautiful Grace Kelly. Hitchcock decided to highlight the beautiful scenery of the French Riviera, opting for wide shots and scenic backdrops. He had a full camera crew in the south of France, collecting footage weeks before shooting began. This extra footage (mostly from above) was used to fill in spaces between scenes; reminding us of our setting. Every shot is a burst of natural colours, punctuated by Edith Head’s vibrant costume design.
7. Mumbai – Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
For two hours, you are completely consumed by the harsh realities of certain parts of Mumbai. This masterpiece centers around Jamal – the chaiwala! – I just wanted to say that. The entire film is a flashback to the gritty upbringing of two brothers and a childhood friend. Scene after scene, we watch Jamal negotiate his way through countless nefarious situations; from performing Darshan Do Ghanshyam to keep his eyes, to dangling off the roof of a moving train to steal chapatis to survive. Slumdog Millionaire showcases the slums of Mumbai to tell an authentic story of love and fate.
6. Vienna – The Third Man (1949)
This film was meant to capture occupied Vienna. It showcases a timeless setting, with Baroque sculptures and cobbled streetscapes. Vienna creates the perfect setting for Carol Reed’s classic film noir. The use of light and shadow in the misty nights adds an eeriness to the picture, creating a dark deserted feeling in most of the shots. The city is present, in fact Reed gives it a few monologues of it’s own; taking shots with nothing but moving shadows against the heavy medieval stone walls.
5. Barcelona – Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Vicky. Cristina. Barcelona. – is as honest a title as it gets – one step up from “untitled”. However, like it suggests, Barcelona deserves top billing in this regard. Woody Allen is known to romanticize about cities but ostensibly got tired of shooting New York, so… he went to Europe. There isn’t much to say about this film, every scene screams Barcelona (or Ovideo – drink wine, make love…you know) What Woody Allen did with this film, was to show it from a localized vantage point with lot’s of side corners, back roads and plenty of on-street action. The script was originally written for San Francisco and then revised in a Spanish context, with the part of Juan Antonio written specifically for Javier Bardem.
4. Bruges – In Bruges (2008)
“Bruges is a shit-hole”, “Bruges is not a shit-hole”… If you’ve never heard of Bruges (like me, prior to this film’s release), then the term “In Bruges” said quickly, will probably sound onomatopoeic to you as well, specifically; like the sound of a bag of baby potatoes hurled at a rustic stone wall – I digress. This film surrounds Ray (Colin Farrell) and his reluctance to be in f*cking Bruges; he is out looking for beer and girls, while Ken (Brendan Gleeson) is on a mission to explore all the medieval art and architecture of the city. We follow them both as they bicker and drag their feet through chapels. A masterpiece about Bruges, in Bruges.
3. Paris – Amélie (2001)
Amélie is a lighthearted pseudo fantasy about a young girl that overcomes her sad childhood and becomes a fresh faced joy-giver. Audrey Tatou plays the title role of Amélie; who subconsciously takes us through Paris as she journeys from one excursion to the next. We go from rue Saint Vincent to Quartier Montmarte, up a street and down an avenue, into train stations and over rivers… It is quite simply a guided tour through parts of Paris masked as a narrated story. When you think Amélie, you think Paris.
2. Tokyo – Lost In Translation (2003)
Sofia Coppola addresses the notion of alienation and discomfort through her mangum opus; Lost in Translation. A film about two westerners finding their way in an eastern megalopolis, battling cultural differences, language barriers and short showers. The elevator scene where Bill Murray towers over everyone subtly shows his misplacement. Like many films in this article, this film celebrates Tokyo by putting the viewer on the street, inside cabs and into subways. It would appear to employ hidden cameras or be in the presence extremely nonchalant by-standers the way it takes you straight into the core of the very dense Tokyo. The best part is it does so without feeling staged.
1. New York City – Manhattan (1979)
“Chapter One; He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion…no, make that: he – he romanticised it all out of proportion. Better. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin…” The opening line sums up the premise of this film; a love letter to Manhattan… and hate mail to a perplexed, 29 year old Meryl Streep.