Paris Je t’aime

Approaching this collection of shorts about Paris, I was a bit wary, worrying that I would have to sit through some gooey love stories that pulled out every cliche about the French capital — the Eiffel Tower, baguettes and pouty Parisian models. And while there are a few clunkers, for the most part, Paris je t’aime is a thoughtful compilation that entertains, and at times pushes the audience to think. The films are littered with some familiar names including Nick Nolte, Elijah Wood, Natalie Portman, Gena Rowlands, Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi and Miranda Richardson. There some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from Willem Defoe and Marianne Faithfull, as well.  The list of directors is also impressive: Gus Van Sant, Wes Craven, the Coen brothers and Alfonso Cuaron are just few of the glittery names that helmed the shorts which comprise the film.

The range of stories are a little head-spinning, and the quality veers wildly. Some are profound and thoughtful, while others are trivial or pretentious. Let’s start with the iffy choices: The worst of the bunch is the Elijah Wood vehicle, “Quartier de la Madeleine” a visually sumptuous though ultimately empty horror tale of vampire love. Also disappointing is Wes Craven’s surprisingly cutesy “Pere-Lachaise” about a young couple who argue in a cemetery, and the obtuse husband learns a lesson in wooing his wife from none other than Oscar Wilde (Alexander Payne who also contributes a short to the project).  Christopher Doyle’s “Port de Choisy” is a loud mess about a salesman who tangles with the owner of a Chinese hair salon. The intent is interesting — the assimilation of immigrants in a Western society, like Paris, though the outcome is disjointed and hard to follow as Doyle employs ridiculous sight gags including the hair salon owner knocking out the salesman with Karate chops. There is also a particularly trying short about a romance between two mimes in “Tour Eiffel” which goes nowhere and wears out its welcome in the first minute.

The films that do work, however are extraordinary. Tom Tykwer’s striking “Faubourg Saint-Denis” is a great story of a young actress (a luminous Portman) who pairs up with a soulful college student who happens to be blind. Juliette Binoche is also masterful in Nobuhiro Suwa’s “Place des Victoires” about a mother handling the death of her young son, badly.  Also worthwhile is Gerard Depardieu’s segment, “Quartier Latin,” starring a still-gorgeous Gena Rowlands (who also wrote the piece) with Ben Gazzara about a couple in late middle-age on the brink of divorce.

There are two shorts that should get special mention: one is Gurinder Chadha’s human story, “Quais de Seine.” It’s a wonderful commentary on France’s growing multiculturalism, as it tells the tale of a young boy who develops a crush on a beautiful Muslim girl. Initially in the film, he’s like the other boys, objectifying women on the street, but realizes the young girl is different (he gets a lot of flack from his friends). The ending is upbeat, but there is a line uttered by the young girl’s grandfather that perfectly summarizes the struggle of immigration in the West, and the line is worth the price of admission alone.

The other film that deserves special mention is Alexander Payne’s “14th arrondissement.” The narrator is Carol (prolific character actress Margo Martindale), a middle-aged postal worker from Denver who is traveling alone to Paris for a week. Her narration is delivered in appallingly bad French, but what at first seems like a cheap joke evolves into an endearing quirk.  Payne creates this wonderfully sympathetic (though never condescending) character who is simultaneously admirable and pitiable. Martindale does wonders with her role, never striking a false note, conveying the regret, compassion and contentment of her character beautifully — it’s unfortunate that she probably will not be nominated for an Oscar in the supporting actress category because she deserves it — especially in her scene in a park, where she perfectly displays a pained mixture of joy and sorrow that comes from being middle-aged and single in the most romantic city in the world.

Paris je t’aime is a lovely valentine to the titular city, with an above-average ratio of good-to-average segments. Some of the films are truly profound and capable of true insight and others seem like filler. However, the strength of Payne’s and Chadha’s films alone make this film worth watching.

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