In which one woman finds two men more than enough company.
Often overlooked in his back catalogue, A Woman of Paris is a lost Charlie Chaplin film in many ways. Unlike every other film that Chaplin took a key role in, here he stays behind the camera for all but a brief uncredited cameo. Without his face on the poster, the film is easy to miss – standing out through its subtlety.
Interestingly, the film opens with a warning from Chaplin that he does not appear in the film (not entirely accurate, he’s a porter at a train station for a moment). For a 1923 audience, attracted to the movie following 1921’s The Kid and his many earlier silent comedies, this was necessary to set their expectations. Today, it’s perhaps a surprise to the viewer that Chaplin was involved in the film at all.
In another departure from his usual output, the film is a straight and serious drama, with a few jokes spread throughout. It’s no coincidence that A Woman of Paris was the first film Chaplin decided to make after setting up his production company, United Artists. His comedic films always succeeded thanks to his mastery of the tragic, creating hilarious contrasts between the highs and lows of his characters. Taking that skill into a serious story was a natural step for Chaplin to challenge himself.
The drama follows the titular woman, Marie, who moves to Paris alone after her artist boyfriend Jean is forced to remain in their small town when his father dies. One year later, Marie is the mistress of Paris’ wealthiest man – Pierre. On her way to a party, she runs into Jean and his mother who live in a small apartment that’s also his studio. Marie and Jean begin to rekindle their romance, while Marie grows more and more distant from Pierre.
Of course, love does not follow a smooth path and Marie’s life begins to tumble as she finds herself caught between the two men.
The film beautifully frames the troubles Marie faces, without trying to smooth over her choices or present her as a tragic heroine. She’s conflicted between past and present, honesty and luxury – ultimately whether she prefers to be the mistress of a wealthy man or the first choice of a humble artist. She doesn’t always make the choices we expect her to -an amazing achievement for 1923 – but everything she does flows from her character and what we know about her.
In researching A Woman of Paris I’ve been struck by how few contemporary reviews I could find. It’s perhaps the best way to head into the film, untroubled neither by the biases that faced 1923 audiences nor the wistful claims of subsequent reviews. Once seen though, the film deserves far greater recognition than it’s received from its passionate fans.
Few seem to consider this movie either one of the 1920s masterpieces or one of Chaplin’s great achievements. Lost without being lost, A Woman of Paris deserves a place in film history.
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