Paris Je T’aime spreads itself out like a high-class 18-ring circus tricolor tent in the Luxemburg Gardens, promising all kinds of spectacles. Thrill as Maggie Gyllenhaal rattles off French! Gasp as Gena Rolands growls in a café! See the city of lights as you’ve never seen it before—with Frodo! The film’s producers—organizers might be more appropriate—commissioned 18 directors to take on a different neighborhood of the city.
I suppose this does qualify as some kind of spectacle, but not one that I’d drop 5 Euros on. The final result is disjointed, cloying, and saccharine, letting on little more about Paris but that it’s pretty, that rich people live there, and that poor people live there.
“Place des Victoires" Nobuhiro Suwa’s dead-baby tearjerker is a fine example of the worst of the film. It opens with Juliette Binoche crying to the imagined sound of her dead boy going on in French about cowboys. She runs into the street in the middle of the night and, guided by Willem Dafoe on horseback (whatever), she finds her son playing in the street with other dead—on second thought, it’s not even worth retelling. The piece has nothing to do with its chosen arrondissement, and it manipulates its audience with no reason. There are many vignettes that share these faults, and some of them are by very fine directors, including Alfonso Cuaron. In his piece, a long single-take street shot that pointlessly mimics the famous opener of Touch of Evil serves an off-putting conversation between growly Nick Nolte and squeaky Ludivine Sagnier (Swimming Pool) in which the couple turn out not to be May-December lovers but… father and daughter. What won’t those crazy French do?
Alternately, those sections that do take a keen interest in their neighborhoods often do so a little too earnestly. A bagatelle about a young Frenchman who gallantly stands up for a Muslim girl is condescending and clumsily constructed. (I believe the moral was that if you’re willing to look past a silly thing like a hijab, you will find that Muslim women are uncommonly gorgeous.) And Christopher Doyle turns in a confounding reverie in Porte de Choisy—something about hair products, a dominatrix, and bowling. It’s not as good as it sounds.
But Paris is impossible not to like at least a little bit, and a movie that trolls aimlessly around the city is bound to have a few successes. I was charmed by “Le Marais” a sweet, funny gay romance directed by Gus Van Sant. And Joel and Ethan Cohen’s “Tuileries,” a study of an American tourist’s worst nightmare—starring Steve Buschemi, whose nervous eyes and perpetually sweaty brow are used to great effect—is just funny enough to carry its three minutes.
The real winner is the final piece, “14th Arrondissement” by Alexander Payne. I wondered what Payne (Sideways, Election), who seems most at home lovingly satirizing the Midwestern middle-class was doing in this upscale Eurofilm. He takes his preferred subject with him, unpacking a quintessential Fat American’s small transformation in Paris. The compelling three-minute character study is told in a Tulsa-accented French voiceover—the protagonist speaking to her adult-education language class— with visuals of the terrifically subtle Margo Martindale on her solo tour. She looks at once sad, lost, and totally abashed by the city. Payne almost strays into cruel condescension but restores dignity to his protagonist and his vignette with a surprisingly natural epiphany at the end of the piece.
Payne almost does the same for the preceding two hours of film—his vignette was wisely placed at the end—but not quite. Suffice it to say, I left the theater dissatisfied. But that’s the way I’ve left Paris when I’ve visited, with memories more of pretty grey-brick buildings than things that actually happened. Maybe someone who loves Paris more than I do would love Paris Je T’aime more. Much as I disliked it, it is a fitting film for Paris, a city so talked about that its stories have stories. There’s so much around Paris that it’s hard to get a feeling for the place itself. It winds up feeling, come to think of it, a little like a circus of European history.
But at least real Paris has the good taste not to suggest Nick Nolte would be sleeping with the girl from Swimming Pool. Ew.