1 Hr., 38 Mins.
Paris Blues July 28, 2020
aris Blues (1961) is a City of Lights-set romantic drama about a pair of expatriate jazz musicians (Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier) who link up with a couple of tourists (Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll) on a two-week vacation. It's a confined-feeling movie — cinematically it’s like a person who gets all their limbs cuffed and is then asked to do a little dance. Paris Blues is great to look at. The
city, brought to the screen via what appears to be a mixture of handsome recreations and beatific location shooting, looks extra romantic in large part because of Christian Matras’ black-and-white, postcard-evoking photography. Sounds pretty magnificent, too. Duke Ellington headed the soundtrack, and when he appears, Louis Armstrong, playing basically a fictionalized version of himself (in the feature, he’s a jazz icon on tour named Wild Man Moore), provides aural wildfires. (The film has its best scene toward its end, which sees Armstrong tearing into a breathtaking freestyle session.) The movie’s good looks make us want to linger in its environs a little longer; the music helps convincingly educe the French jazz milieu the film dramatizes.
But the romances, though realized with emotional honesty by its four leads, strike us as thin when they’re supposed to come with a sort of life-or-death lift. It also doesn’t help that, before production began, plans to have the movie be built on a pair of interracial romances (between Newman and Carroll, Poitier and Woodward) were thwarted by execs worried about the film’s commercial prospects. This took away, in Poitier’s words, the movie’s “guts” and “spark.” His romance with Carroll in the film is plenty striking, and still undeniably helped break new ground by way of representation. But the movie can’t go down all right knowing this, plus the fact that in Paris Blues, the Black couple’s relationship eventually becomes the B plot below the A plot afforded to the white couple.
A mistake, because the relationship between Poitier and Carroll is more interesting. Woodward is a divorcée with two kids who desperately wants the aloof, intentionally emotionally circumspect Newman to warm up, commit, and then come home with her. (He wants to stay in Europe and professionally work his way up — he looks up to someone like Armstrong’s character.) But there’s nothing very exciting about their romance, because the intentions of both people are so out of stride that we can’t altogether understand why Woodward’s character is so quickly ripe to risk it all. When they’re briefly on the same page, we know not to trust it.
Carroll, Woodward’s schoolteacher friend, also wants Poitier to commit, and he does eventually decide to. He doesn’t have walls up in the same way Newman’s character does — there’s a tangible warmth to him. But the conflict at the crux of their romance makes it more urgent: Poitier isn’t sure he wants to go back to America since, in Paris, anti-Black racism’s not as omnipresent. Carroll’s character believes this is just him being myopically attached to escapism (she thinks that Poitier should be “setting an example” back home rather than running away from said home). It’s a fascinating rift the film doesn’t delve into with enough detail. These discordant ideals are smoothed out almost unceremoniously by the end.
Paris Blues would rather allot more time to the simplistic, hot-cold affinity between Woodward and Newman. And the latter couple, spoiler alert, doesn’t even end up together by the film’s closer. “You won’t forget me,” Woodward, who has tears in her eyes, tells her mercurial fling at the train station. It’s impressive how much emotional lucidity the actress lends a moment bookending a brief romance that doesn’t especially move us. We can detect the great movie somewhere within Paris Blues; what might it have been had it been
less hesitant, more willing to humor its difficult conversations? Paris Blues has gusto musically and visually; the performances frequently spark. But this is a film whose boldness only comes in glimmers. It’s been competently made, but its competence is a lot of the time disappointingly coated with selective progressivism and risk-aversion. B-