Saturday, September 09, 2006


(Special Presentations)
2006, France, 116 minutes
Directed by: Bruno Podalydès, Gurinder Chadha, Gus Van Sant, Joel and Ethan Coen, Walter Salles, Daniela Thomas, Christopher Doyle, Isabel Coixet, Nobuhiro Suwa, Sylvain Chomet, Alfonso Cuarón, Olivier Assayas, Oliver Schmitz, Richard LaGravenese, Vincenzo Natali, Wes Craven, Tom Tykwer, Frédéric Auburtin, Gérard Depardieu, Alexander Payne

To paraphrase “Three Dog Night”: I’ve never been to Paris, but I kinda like the movies (relax; I’m not one of those boomer reviewers who are forever reliving the frisson of their first copy of “Cahier Du Cinema). Intended as a 21st century follow-up to the 1965 anthology “Paris vu par” (which featured short cinematic odes by the likes of original auteurs Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chebrol, and Eric Romer), “Paris je t’aime” is a predictably scattershot, the result of twenty international filmmakers having been given carte blanche to write and direct a mini-movie of their choice, providing it incorporated The City Of Lights and ran no longer than five minutes. Given the eclectic roster, just about every major genre of storytelling is on display here, with the exception of animation (although “The Triplets Of Belleville”s Sylvain Chomet helms a live-action bit) and hardcore porn (Richard LaGravenese’s segment set in the “Pigelle” district is an agreeable bit of middle-aged head gaming, despite the seedy locale). Pity no one could work in some parkour.

Thus, the collision of diverse neighborhoods and characters is illustrated through stylized melodrama, fly-on-the-wall (pseudo) documentary, fantasy, musical burlesque—there’s even time for a cowboy right out of Republic Pictures (I’ll get back to that one). Not that all of them necessarily work--if nothing else, it proves just how difficult it is to make a short, even when you have complete autonomy. Some films are over in a blink and leave you pining for feature-length expansion, others overstay their welcome and will have you counting the seconds—all 300 of them.

Each bit is accompanied with an onscreen title to identify the district, as well as the director. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of art-house abstraction on display here, as most installments boast aspire to some sort of mini-narrative with closure, while others function as voyeuristic visual tone poems, open-ended and seeking to capture the vibe of a particular neighborhood through unique bits of actor-ly business. Alfonso Cuaron’s "Parc Monceau” takes a page from Altman by following Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier in a single tracking shot as they verbally spar about her relationship with another man (there’s a cute twist), oblivious--or perhaps accustomed to--the array of flavours offered with each turn of the corner and each new doorway.

Others use the change in format, running time, and location to vacation from themselves. “Music Of The Heart” might have found horror icon Wes Craven trying too hard to prove he could be merely “ordinary”, but his “Pere-Lachaise” is a charming ditty in which the Emily Mortimer and her stick-in-the-mud fiancée Rufus Sewell explore the titular necropolis in search of high-brow celebrity graves. Following a spat at the grave of Oscar Wilde, Sewell is visited by the ghost of the famed English wit and coached from beyond as to how to win back his brainy betrothed.

The project bravely doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of modern European society, particularly immigration and the problems of assimilation. Walter Salles’ largely silent “Loin du 16eme " is a somber portrait of the daily grind of a poor immigrant servant (“Maria Full Of Grace”s Catalina Sandino Moreno) in the service of her affluent and largely unseen employer. Each is a mother, but that role only illuminates the differences in their respective status. Gurinder Chadha comments on the barriers caused by religious stereotyping through a burgeoning relationship between two teenagers: a native Parisian slacker, the other a Muslim girl, who despite their cultural backgrounds, are just kids. In Oliver Schmitz’ somber “Place des Fetes”, an African immigrant whose janitorial job renders him more ore less invisible is left to literally die on the street.

Some of the efforts are downright baffling: Gus Van Sandt’s “Le Marais”, with a throwaway cameo from Marianne Faithful, finds the filmmaker still in his noodling post-“Good Will Hunting” phase as he observes a presumed attraction between two gay youths in a print shop. “Cube”s Vincenzo Natali uses the “Quartier de la Madeleine” to tempt Elijah Wood with an alluring female vampire—it’s beautifully shot and appropriately Expressionistic, but the odd fit of “French Postcards” and Anne Rice leaves one scratching the head rather than swooning. Wong Kar-Wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle directs filmmaker/actor Barbet Schroeder in the giddy "Porte de Choisy" as a first time hair products salesman who enters Chinatown and finds himself in a splashy musical fantasia—trapped in his own TV commercial perhaps ala “The Icicle Thief”?

And that cowboy I mentioned? He can be found in the form of Willem Dafoe in Nobuhiro Suwa's turgid and overripe "Place des Victoires", which finds Juliette Binoche finding solace in the loss of her child through the iconography of the American West.
But this is France, so what of “mimes” you ask? There is one--actually, two. Those of you suffering from coulrophobia would be head to the snack bar during "Tour Eiffel", in which Sylvain Chomet infuses his first collaboration with live actors with the same baroque humour and physics-defying prowess in this exploration of what happens when mimes meet, marry, and have a child (for real). It’s not nearly as annoying as it sounds—it’s a fun—if dangerously cutesy--take on Mike Jitlov’s “Wizard Of Speed And Time.

And Gerard Depardieu? He’s here, too. "Quartier Latin," written by and starring actress Gena Rowlands , is directed by Gerard Depardieu and Frederic Auburtin, and reunites her with former costar Ben Gazzara in a bitter two-hander that takes a break from the punch-drunk love to suggest that time, and distance, do not necessarily heal all wounds.

Some of the best segments are the result of filmmakers utilizing their proven strengths: “Run Lola Run”s Tom Tykwer’s “Faubourg Saint-Denis” experiments with time structures and shifting perceptions in a story about an American actress (Natalie Portman) and a blind languages student (Melchior Beslon). Joe And Ethan Coen deliver the project’s bonafide crowd-pleasure with “Tuileries”, in which Steve Buscemi, in a physical performance worthy of Buster Keaton, plays a hapless American tourist who idles away the time on a Metro platform consulting his hysterically oracular guidebook (“Avoid Eye Contact!”) while enduring various abuses from chip-on-their-shoulder lovers and a little French bastard with a pea shooter (this one should be released on its own as a short film).

Alexander Payne’s "14th Arrondissement", my favorite episode (and the film’s last) concerns another American tourist, this time “Million Dollar Baby”s Margo Martindale as a middle-aged letter carrier from Denver who narrates her solo adventure with hilariously precise, textbook francais as she journeys to Paris in search of love but leaves with pride and perspective.

Some plots overlap in the coda, but obviously, wrapping up 18 stories in a single sequence would be a daunting task even for Dickens. Those of you still smarting over Haneke’s latest stunt and/or dreading the next Francis Veber comedy (or worse, its American remake) will welcome this easy-digestible confection, with enough “meet-cute”, rekindled flames, unrequited pining, and doomed hearts to engage viewers no matter what the current state of their love life.

-Robert J. Lewis