03 February 2008

Paris Je t'Aime

Paris, Je T’Aime
(Paris, I Love You)

Paris itself is divided into 20 arrondissements or districts. The films are titled after the districts, with the exception of the XVe and the XIe which were shot, but not included in the final film. So we are given 18 postcards from Paris to watch. And to read, actually, considering most of the film is in French with subtitles.

The five minute shorts are directed by a long list of notable directors (The Coen Brothers, Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuarón, Wes Craven to name a few) and cast with such actors as Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi, Willem DaFoe, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Nick Nolte, Natalie Portman, and Elijah Wood.

The city itself is as much as a character as it is a backdrop to these small, incomplete, glimpses that unfold on her streets. You become acutely aware of the city sounds, the footfalls and car horns, the blurring of passing conversations, the hum of the Metro. The gaudy lights of Pigalle are as vital to the fabric of Paris as the sun falling on the banks of the Seine, or the shadows of the Eiffel Tower. You wander Montmatre, Marais, Bastille, Tuileries, Père Lachaise Cemetery, and the Latin Quarter, wishing you had just a little more time to linger. But then you are bustled along down another street to another story.

There is something almost voyeuristic about these stories, these glimpses into anonymous lives in a beautiful city. You feel as if you are overhearing conversations or staring into windows or driving by. They are quiet intimacies of other people’s love and loss. You don’t have to feel them, just witness them and move on.

In Le Marais (IVe) directed by Gus Van Sant. We are in a small, cramped printshop and gallery. A customer played by Marianne Faithfull comes in with a lean, muscular young man whose face is framed with shaggy hair. Faithfull disappears for a few moments with the owner of the shop and the young man finds himself attracted to the young printshop worker who sits and smokes a cigarette. The young man carries on, compelled to speak for reasons he doesn’t understand. He tries to explain that he believes the man to be his soulmate. The worker’s seeming indifference is exasperating until you realize that he does not speak French.

The couple in Parc Monceau (XVIIe) by writer-director Alfonso Cuarón are not what they seem. Nick Nolte is an older man whose cigarette hardened voice tries to reassure his companion, a young woman about a certain Gaspar. He repeatedly asks her to trust him. About what? That is the most delightful part.

My favorite short was directed by German writer-director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run and most recently Perfume, Story of a Murderer). In Faubourg Saint-Denis (Xe) a young blind man receives a telephone call from his girlfriend in which she appears to break up with him. With painful awareness we hear the click of the receiver and the man reflects how his relationship unfolded with the struggling actress (played by Natalie Portman) and how it seemed to decline. The pacing of this film is beautiful. It starts off tenderly with a chance meeting between the two and as the relationship is measured out in increments of intimacy, the blind man’s narration repeats itself faster and faster. The story is punctuated by the screams of the actress. Screams in anger, in orgasmic ecstasy, in jest, in surprise, in joy. The intimacy of the relationship sours to an almost unbearable mundanity, calling to mind T.S. Eliot’s "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". But instead, this love song is measured out in swimming pools, and movies, and screams. The end is not unlike the beginning, a phone rings painfully loud and the blind man picks it up.

Not all the films work as seamlessly into a narrative. In Quartier de la Madeleine (VIIIe) Elijah Wood plays a hapless backpacker who falls in love with a Vampire in this campy horror short. It feels childish and somewhat insincere compared with the other films. Wes Craven’s contribution, the short set in Père-Lachaise (XXe) suffers from a rather contived appearance of the ghost of Oscar Wilde, who comes to the aid of a man who was just rejected by his fiancée. Even the gloomy splendor of the famous Père-Lachaise Cemetery cannot help this unimaginative short.

Paris Je T’Aime offers you a glimpse into the City of Light, five minutes at a time.

Paris Je t'Aime
(2006) Produced by Emmanuel Benbihy and Claudie Ossard
First Look Pictures (USA distribution)
120 Minutes, French with subtitles

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