Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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 Post subject: PARIS, JE T'AIME (2006)
PostPosted: Sun May 27, 2007 8:23 pm 
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18 quick takes on an eternal theme

This film, which groups together 18 stories by as many directors all dealing in one way or another with the theme of love and the setting of the French capital, must thereby set some kind of recent European record for number of segments in an omnibus film. What we have here is a set of restrictions worthy of Lars von Trier and his Five Obstructions: deal with life’s most profound emotion and the world’s most beautiful and romantic city – in five minutes. Can you do it? Can you stay within such limitations and still do justice to the theme and the locale? Such a project puts a severe strain on both filmmaker and audience. For viewers, it requires constant refocusing, and after a while even the most alert are likely to lose track. For filmmakers, the amount of condensation required is staggering, and suits some filmmaking styles more than others. Most of the directors are established and may be a long way from their “court métrage” stage. One strains to imagine how a more dilatory director, like Rivette or Antonioni or Desplechin, could thrive in the sound-bite format. Speaking of bites, this is like those fancy restaurants (Thomas Keller’s French Laundry is the most noted) supplying little more than exquisite bites, because diners are served a long series of tiny dishes. If that approach whets your appetite, this film also may appeal to you. Or you may feel frustrated, as if you’d consumed 18 plates and still left the table hungry. While individual styles are present, it is hard to fully assert, and harder to make the most of, a style in such a short time-span. While each episode is linked to a different Paris neighborhood (with different degrees of logic), a reliance on golden-lit evening shots to bookend all the segments leaves one with a sense of visual sameness. And many of the segments have had the same editor, Simon Jacquet. Nonetheless this sampler offers a variety of beauty and talent and some brilliance and will be worth coming back to.

A lot of the directors of Paris, je t’aime aren’t French, and this is largely therefore an outsider’s Paris. Nothing wrong with that. As American photographer William Klein spent decades documenting, Paris has continued to grow more and more multi-colored and multi-cultural, and is far from the pale gray mono-cultural lady of Fifties images. At least two of the outsider’s views (“Place des Fetes” by Oliver Schmitz, about a poor black worker and an African nurse, and, Tom Tykwer's "Faubourg Saint Denis," about a French boy whose girlfriend gives him the gate) are among the most moving and brilliantly concise, partly through the use of modern editing techniques to tell a lot of background in fast flashbacks. Schmitz’s more poignant tale and warmer actors (Aissa Maiga and Seydou Boro) have the edge.

The filmmakers have to grab you fast, and one method they use is iconic actors. Depardieu appears in his own film along with the classic Cassavetes film couple of Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands. They certainly know how to play together, though Gazzara looks and sounds pretty old to be the playboy his lines convey. In Cuaron’s "Parc Monceau" episode using a long tracking shot, Nick Nolte is visiting a young woman, and spouting bad French; the episode goes nowhere, and he seems to be improvising clumsily, mispronouncing one of the character’s names. In “Loin du 16ème” Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas seek to tell a socially conscious tale of a beautiful young women (Catalina Sandino Moreno, of Maria Full of Grace and six other films since) who cares for a rich lady’s baby and her own in vastly different circumstances, but the episode fizzles because it has nothing more to say. Juliette Binoche and Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant and Ludivine Segnier and Willem Dafoe and Elijah Wood and Sergio Castellitto and Miranda Richardson and Rufus Sewell and Natalie Portman all appear, with varying results. In a segment that's itself a kind of cameo, cameo's don't count for so much.

Directors under such tight time restrictions, with little room to breathe, fall back on personal schticks. Alexander Payne again out-sources middle America with a Denver maiden lady’s account, all in her mispronounced beginner's French, of a first trip leading to a love affair with the city itself (the final segtment, and a logically fitting one). As in Payne’s earlier efforts the result is ambigious, to some touching, to others condescending; artistically his segment is one of the most neatly unified, with the classically simple device of a single main actor (Margo Martindale) and her voiceover. Van Sant focuses on cute boys (Gaspard Ulliel and blond American newcomer Elias McConnell)—and no harm done: the one true aspect of love that can be limned in five is an instant crush and attempted pickup. And Assayas, one of the film’s organizers, goes back to drugs. His story doesn’t go anywhere (in a way it’s another attempted pickup) but he uses a typically intense and real Maggie Gyllenhaal, and his is some of the only camerawork that feels fresh. The Coen brothers resort to brutality, showing another solitary American tourist getting beaten up by a French girl's French boyfriend in the Tuileries Metro station, where he has been to the Louvre: La Gioconde’s enigmatic smile turns mocking when his assailant dumps his shopping bag and a dozen Mona Lisa postcards fall out. This is a good episode for its element of surprise and its mockery of a saccharine "Paris is for Lovers" outlook. It’s for lovers, but not for Steve Buscemi’s fall guy character, who, to his peril, also has broken his guidebook’s explicit warning not to look people in the eye in the Metro. Sometimes the Coens are better with premises than with deep explorations. But to be this good in five minutes sort of is deep. Wong Kar Wai’s ex-cinematographer Christopher Doyle does his Chinese thing: he deals with an emasculating Chinese lady entrepreneur in Paris. But the effect is more of an advertising stunt shoot than a story.

There’s no unity of segments, and none needed. In such a collection, you have one advantage: the boring ones go by fast, and the good ones, you can linger over in your mind. Everyone will have favorites, and peeves. Enough said?

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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