I'm not saying it's easy to tell a story in 90 or 120 minutes, but it's a heck of a lot harder to tell it in 5. The luxuries of character development and transition are not at your disposal. It's not like a lengthy jazz piece, but rather more like a rock or pop song in which you have to burn all the way through. Wes Craven, one of the directors of 2007's anthology PARIS, JE T'AIME, describes it as (something like this) "In five minutes you can't have John. Drives to the market. Meets Jane. Goes to the park. It's John drives to the maket and meets Jane and goes to the park." Apt. As you could imagine, things could go awry very easily.
They most certainly do not in this collection. Recall my review for its sequel, 2009's NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU, last month. The disparate tales told in that movie rarely worked and just felt pointless. In PARIS JE T'AIME, we conversely understand these characters and entirely get why they love this most romantic of cities. It is a very happy merger of the cinematic and the beautiful economy of the short story. Just about every segment involves us. In very little time, we get a richly detailed portrait. We, of course, can't get all the details but we're given enough to develop ideas on our own. Like that young mother (Catalina Sandino Moreno) in "Loin de 16e" who drops off her own child in daycare to rush across the city to tend to her employer's baby. Or the aging couple (Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands) in "Quartier Latin" who meet for a drink before divorce proceedings the next day. Also, the mother (Juliette Binoche) who, in "Place des Victoires", grieves the death of her son and gets the chance to visit him in the afterlife, if but for a moment. Sometimes it's in the dialogue, and when there's little of that, it's in the directors' and actors' choices. What to show? What to hold back? Every moment has a purpose. There's just so little time. NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU, didn't seem to get that.
The other movie also tried to hard to be clever, to pull the rug out from under us at the conclusion of each tale. This time, a few segments suprise us without feeling gimmicky. Alfonso Cuaron's "Parc Monceau" reveals the relationship between an American (Nick Nolte)and a young Parisian girl (Ludivine Sagnier)gradually, their dialogue filled with clues. Gus Van Sant's "Le Marais" leads to a climax we've all experienced in one form or another. Vincenzo Natali's "Quartier de la Madeleine", a vampire horror/romance (complete with copius CGI bloodletting) resolves in a way consistent with vampire legendry; this episode is good campy fun, one you might've expected to have been directed by horror maestro Craven, who instead contributes "Pere-Lachaise", a story of an about to be married couple who visit the grave of Oscar Wilde.
The Coen Brothers contribute "Tuileries", a coldly clever, unsympathetic yet funny bit with Steve Buscemi as a tourist, hunched down in the Metro with his maps and guidebooks, drawing the ire of a local and his girlfriend (and a little brat with a pea shooter). It's amusing and very much in the vein of the Coens' other works. Buscemi never says a word, even at times reminding us of one of the clowns of silent films. Tom Tykwer's "Faubourg Saint-Denis" is a frantic, time shifting bit of cinema focusing on a young blind man's (Melchior Beslon) romance with an actress (Natalie Portman) that dazzles us with its style (think RUN LOLA RUN's energy) and satisfying wrap up. Sylvain Chomay's "Tour Eiffel" manages to take that most enduring of French cliches, the mime, and not only poke fun at them, but also embrace them with a sweetly funny valentine.
The tone of PARIS JE T'AIME shifts wildly among episodes, but smoothly, expertly. Like a DJ segueing music. Some of the bits became instant favorites of mine that I know I'll be watching again for years to come. It's a fine blending of styles among such an eclectic band of directors. The only piece that didn't completely come together for me was "Quartier des Enfants Rouges", directed by Olivier Assayas and starring Maggie Gyllenhal as an actress on location, striking up a connection with a young man we learn is a courier of special merchandise. The intrigue is minimal; it felt like one of the misfires of I LOVE YOU, NEW YORK.
This film also has this certain quality that appeals to me: the unxplainable feeling you get when you're on to the next story, but you're still thinking about the previous one. You're full into a new segment, meeting the principals and learning about them, but still you think on that young man who meets a Middle Eastern woman and her grandfather. You wonder what happens right after that last shot we just saw. You care. This occurred for me over and over in this movie, but maybe it's just me. I sometimes feel this way when I've finshed watching one TV program and the next one begins. What are the other characters doing now?
My favorite segment of PARIS JE T'AIME? "14e arrondissement", written and directed by Alexander Payne, who has an impressive resume of films like SIDEWAYS and ABOUT SCHMIDT. Each of his works examine someone who feels increasingly isolated, perhaps trapped in the past. Margot Martindale plays an American who has saved enough to spend 6 days in Paris. She narrates her segment entirely in French, quite proud of her lessons. Her attempts at an authentic accent are positively authentically American. She describes her life as a postal worker back home in Denver, a former boyfriend who is now married with children, the loneliness she often feels. It is heartbreaking, yet flashes of well timed humor are just perfect amongst the melancholia (like in SCHMIDT). Martindale is just perfect as the plain Jane, and having her narrate in French just makes it so effective. Her final scene is a summary for the entire film, a great moment that many have experienced while in the City of Lights, a moment that was all the more effective for me as I made my own first trip to Paris last year. This is a wonderful movie.