Much art, literature, and indeed film has been created to try to capture some sense of the joi d'vivre of Paris. In fact, the very genesis of cinematography included the late nineteenth century inventions of the French Lumière brothers' 1895 cinematographe portable projector and motion picture camera, and Georges Méliès pioneering special effects.
"Paris, je t'aime" sheds new focus on the City of Lights and Love. The concept - 20 arrondissements, 20 directors, 18 (it was originally 20)stories, 127 minutes. Each story is to begin with the closing shot of the previous one.
A breathtaking team of directorial and acting talent, such as Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham), Natalie Portman (Star Wars episodes I, II, and III, Garden State), Juliette Binoche (Chocolat, The English Patient), Nick Nolte (Hotel Rwanda), Joel and Ethan Coen (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona), Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run), and Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Everything is Illuminated), were assembled. The directors were to each create an approximately five-minute film relating a romantic Parisian encounter, and to do this with a 2-3 day shooting schedule.
The result is playfully energetic and generally fun vignettes of local color that help characterize the city's diversity. It all, somehow, hangs together, even though the individual stories are very different just as two Parisians or city districts.
My favorite was Tour Eiffel (directed by the French Sylvain Chomet), about two mimes who magically turn any frowns in their lives into smiles. Their delight at meeting each other is obvious in the exuberance of their "riding" mime vehicles which appear to zip them to cafés and romantic walks along the Seine, and is humorously contrasted to the askance looks of others. The female mime, played by Yolande Moreau, incidentally, has a film credit in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 film "Amélie".
Gurinder Chadha's Quais de Seine reveals the promise of cross-cultural love for a beautiful Muslim girl rushing off to prayers. Brazilian directors Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas present a touching tale of a young immigrant mother who must wake up very early and drop her still sleeping baby off at a nursery in the dark, then rush through a long journey into the city's 16th arrondissement to care for another baby, that of a wealthy family's.
Many of the films have an element of the surreal and fanciful that, to me, was a little reminiscent of the quirkiness of Amelie, though less subtle. In Porte de Choisy, Christopher Doyle depicts a salesman who arrives at a Chinese hair salon to present a new product line. He is inexplicably greeted at the door by a woman who punches through the glass door and pulls him in; he is quickly dismissed. The film ends up, after a short scene in a Buddhist temple complete with a bowling alley, almost in an MTV-like dance sequence of the beautiful salon owner, with an obvious change of heart, in a flowing black dress, her co-workers in fatigues, and the salesman.
There are many stories, each of which is bound, even in a few minutes' duration, to surprise. There's the story of the husband waiting to meet his wife to announce his intent to divorce her; fellow diners become a Greek chorus to respond to her unexpected life-changing news that she first presents, and which in turn causes his own life to radically alter. Traumatized by the death of her young son, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) is lured from her sleep to a fantasy get-together with him. An elderly man, played by Nick Nolte, rushes to meet a young woman who is nervous about how the new male in her life will react but the story turns out to be anything but cliché.
One story is about an aid worker treating a stabbed immigrant from Lagos awash with mellifluous song. In a Gothic tale, Elijah Wood plays the role of a tourist out late at night who stumbles upon a temptress vampire. In Tom Tykwer's Faubourg Saint-Denis, Natalie Portman plays an American who comes to Paris to act; the film begins with her apparent breakup call, poetically expressed, to her blind boyfriend, but the flashback to their spring, summer, and fall of their relationship and a final flash forward reveals the true sense of their seasons together.
"Paris, je t'aime", I am finding, is the kind of film (films?!) that grows on you. As I reflect on it, I feel the desire to experience it all again, and suspect that I would enjoy it even more. While there were a few segments that I didn't care for, many of the stories had subtleties and inherent references that could easily be missed. For those segments that just don't capture a viewer's interest, one can look forward to a new story just minutes later.
The concept itself is a clever one, though it could have been, and thankfully wasn't, unremarkably executed if it had mediocre talent. I think that I missed some transition motifs, but in general the films flowed well together, even with seemingly very different stories juxtaposed one after the other. There was effort to weave the episodes together through the transitions and at the end; I would have enjoyed this to have been a bit more developed.
There are a few perhaps difficult to experience language episodes and mature situations, though not particularly many. In any case I don't think that most teens or children would relate well to some of the stories. I do recommend "Paris, je t'aime" to most discerning adults who would appreciate nuanced and clever plots, often with charming and understated humor. Lovers of Paris, of course, must see this montage of films. Like a tempting candy sampler with bonbons wrapped this way and that, "Paris, je t'aime" offers much to delight.
6 ½ stars out of 10 (This is a version of a review that I sent for publication in a regional magazine on June 20, 2007)
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