Friday, October 10, 2008

paris, je t'aime

It was bad enough that I was already homesick for Paris (I never know what to call these physical aches for cities that can’t really be considered my home). This film—a truly visionary idea to unite 15 directors for 15 five-minute stories about different arrondissements of Paris—made the ache even more acute. You may have guessed at the way I read poetry and listen to music that I like compilations—even if you have to take the bad with the good, at least you’re guaranteed an interesting view point, which is exactly what you get with the short, stylishly-made films in Paris, je t’aime.

The casting is like a dream come true. Luminaries of French, British, and American cinema such as Natalie Portman, Gérard Depardieu, Gena Rowlands, Gaspard Ulliel, Elijah Wood, Steve Buscemi, Fanny Ardant, Bob Hoskins, Marianne Faithfull, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Nick Nolte, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emily Mortimer, Rufus Sewell, and on and on. The collection of directors and writers isn’t bad either.

Five minutes of something you find boring or incomprehensible will seem a fidgety lifetime; five minutes of something you enjoy or that intrigues you will feel like five seconds (I guess, as Einstein said, that’s relativity). This is certainly the case in Paris, je t’aime. To be sure, “Porte de Choisy” as directed by Christopher Doyle was a pretension, a Chinatown/Moulin Rouge hybrid, but I got some good laughs out of it. Sylvain Chomet’s “Tour Eiffel” was also heartily self-indulgent (mimes, prisons, children) but amusing. I had high expectations for Alfonso Cuarón’s “Parc Monceau” but found the lighting too dark for illumination, the twist too Montpaussant. “Pigalle”’s luminary actors were something, but again, I felt confused and let down by the story. But all the others, to a higher or lower degree, intrigued, amused, and moved me.

“Montmartre” was 100% French even if it didn’t show any windmills. Like almost all of the stories, it was about love. It was about a self-deprecating man trying to park his car, and a fainting woman who intrudes on his lonely life. Try writing something compelling for five minutes about that—and Bruno Podalydès did. “Quais des Seines” somehow bore Gurinder Chadha’s unmistakable mark on its completely accurate tale of cross-cultural love, with an excellent understanding of the French male teenager’s mind, and some lovely shots of the Mosque near the Jardin du Luxembourg as well.

“Le Marais” was about love, too, but its revelation was as sad as **SPOILER Donna’s near-miss of her “husband” in “Forest of the Dead.” SPOILER** “Tuileries” by the Coen Brothers is one of the more likely, the more arch, and definitely one of the funniest of the entries. Considering it takes place entirely in the Tuileries Metro station, it has nothing to support it but the strength of its writing and the humor it manages to milk out of a tourist entangled in the ways of a typically French couple. “Loin de 16ième” was utterly different to anything else, a Naturalist novel in five minutes.

Isabel Coixet’s “Bastille” defied expectations and showed us yet another kind of love, without sentimentality and again, with a great dose of Parisian humor. The eerie, pathos-soaked “Place des Victoires,” directed by Nobuhiro Suwa, again highlighted selfless love against a background of the mythic. “Quartier des Enfants Rouges,” by Olivier Assayas, with its unlikely story of love between a drug dealer and an American movie actress, seemed to have possibility to live beyond the five minutes in which it had been written. By contrast, I could barely bear to watch “Place des Fêtes” and the life of an immigrant from Lagos who lays it all on the line for love. Oliver Schmidt’s vision of love is merciless.

Speaking of merciless love, the most outrageous story was the Sin City-drenched “Quartier de la Madeleine” which gives us Anne-Rice-on-steroids vampirism courtesy of Vincenzo Natali. I laughed until I cried. Wes Craven surprisingly directed the impressively English “Père-Lachaise,” which testifies to the unique beauty of that Parisian landmark while including a romance and a cameo from Oscar Wilde. I absolutely loved “Faubourg St Denis”’s atypical love story and brilliant direction from Tom Tykwer. It brought me nearly to tears, and I loved that it fooled me in the end. Frédéric Auburtin and Gérard Dépardieu collaborated on acid champagne penned by Gena Rowlands in the ex-pat gay divorcée romp of “Quartier Latin.” But my favorite would have to be “14ieme Arrondissement” written and directed by Alexander Payne, whose idea this whole thing was (he even plays Oscar Wilde). Margo Martindale sucks us in from the very first word of her poorly-prounounced, syntactically plodding French as an American student of French who indulges her dream to go to Paris for a week. Alone. It was the perfect note upon which to end this collection, and again, it nearly brought tears to my eyes—but the good kind.

I would highly recommend this film to anyone—but especially Francophiles. But you’ll want to be in Paris yourself . . .

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