30 May 2007

WHEN IT SIZZLES

The omnibus film! That most difficult, maddening, precious attempt to gather the best and the brightest of international cinema into one place, the genre that peaked and fizzled in a roughly 3 year span in the 1960s and has never taken off since!

A full year after its 2006 Cannes premiere, the United States gets to taste the world's newest omnibus film, Paris, je t'aime, in which 18 filmmakers or filmmaking teams created a short film about 18 of the 20 arrondissements* of Paris (whether the last two were incomplete or cut, I cannot say). Each of the shorts concerns, in some way, shape or form, a love story.

In all honesty, there's not a whole lot of cohesion to the finished project; for the most part the order of shorts is chosen non-arbitrarily (and not at all related to the numbering of the arrondissements themselves), but it never feels like a unified celebration of Paris, but a basketful of individual and highly personal reflections upon the city. Which is frankly as it should be; but it does mean that describing the project as a whole is kind of wasteful. Instead, this being the internet & therefore space is no concern, I'll go film by film.

* * * * *

Montmartre, written and directed by Bruno Podalydès.

A very low-key start to things, in which Podalydès (of whose work I am totally ignorant) stars as a crabby driver caught in traffic, when he spots a young woman (Florence Muller) who has fainted in the street. He rescues her, and they talk.

It's quite French and narratively vague, but it is uadmittedly sweet. Fortunately, better films crowd it out almost immediately. You might think of it as a palate cleanser, readying you for the buffet ahead without leaving much of a trace itself.

* * * * *

Quais de Seine, directed by Gurinder Chadha, written by Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges.

To start, this does a much better job of being about place than the previous film: set in the Left Bank, home of the great universities of Paris, it is largely a story of leaning things about life and oneself. It's a tiny multi-culti fable, in which a young Muslim woman (Leïla Bekhti) demonstrates the value of not being a sexist bigot to an earnest young French student (Cyril Descours).

It's a satisfying enough love story, but it suffers a bit due for being a too-literal epxression of its themes: the girl essentially preaches to us and the boy for about 40 seconds, and I still haven't decided if the short format makes that more necessary or more objectionable. I can say without hesitation that it's indelicate where it feels out place, and ruins an otherwise sweet story.

* * * * *

Le Marais, written and directed by Gus Van Sant.

The first short to really stand out because of its style, and of course that style would be the clinical humanism of Van Sant's that I've never found very appealing. This is the only homosexual story in the film - kind of - as befits the story set in the gay center of the city. Why only one? Homophobic Frenchmen, I guess.

Being a Van Sant film, not a damn thing happens: an artist (Marianne Faithfull, way overqualified for the size of her part) needs paint, so she takes her translator (Gaspard Ulliel) to a workshop where he falls head over heels for the new assistant (Elias McConnell), and talks his ear off about banal trivialities until he has to leave. All concerned nail the nervous energy of a new flirtation, and Van Sant's style is much more delightful in five minutes than in, say, Elephant, but I still have to complain about the final gag of the story, which isn't funny (due to the director's inflectionless camera), and makes up for in predictability what it lacks in emotional honesty.

* * * * *

Tuileries, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Obviously, the story set in the main tourist district of Paris would have to be shot by Americans, and feature an American tourist played by Steve Buscemi in the befuddled style of Jacques Tati. This is quite the best of the 18 segments, a tiny comedy that could practically work as a silent, concerning an innocent abroad getting into the most horrible trouble despite his trusty guidebooks. It's slight, and it's fairly obvious to look at it how it works, so I wouldn't want to risk breaking it by trying to analyze it further; but it's sheer magic of that sort that reminds me what makes me love the Coens.

* * * * *

Loins de 16e, written and directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas.

Heady stuff coming off of the Coen farce: Catalina Sandino Moreno is an impoverished young woman who leaves her child in a mass nursery to go serve as nanny to the child of a careless businesswoman. It's the shortest film here, and perhaps the most sobering: a quick punch in the gut of social awareness acted to perfection. As it stands, it's one of my favorites here, but I suspect that its impact would be even greater if it were pushed to a later point in the whole.

* * * * *

Porte de Choisy, directed by Christopher Doyle, written by Doyle, Gabrielle Keng and Kathy Li.

Set in the Parisian Chinatown, this is not exactly the "worst" film in the batch, but it's easily the most confusing: director Barbet Schroeder plays a hair products salesman who runs against the imperious Madame Li (model Li Xin) and...something. It turns into what looks unmistakably like a high-fashion commercial, and that is why I'm willing to cut it at least a tiny bit of slack: Doyle is after all a cinematographer, and that is why I am willing to let it slide that his second-ever project as a director is basically a celebration of the photographed. It's not the most beautiful thing ever (oddly, Doyle didn't shoot it; Kathy Li did), but it's stylish and full of lovely images.

That doesn't keep it from being blisteringly incoherent, mind you.

* * * * *

Bastille, written and directed by Isabelle Coixet.

Surprisingly upbeat and playful for a story that is almost entirely about death and/or loss, but that's Europe for you. A man (Sergio Castellitto) is preparing to leave his wife (Miranda Richardson) until he learns that she is dying of cancer. He falls back in love with her, and cares for her until she dies.

Morbid stuff, that, but Coixet (a Spanish director that I've never heard of before) keeps things lively by dropping dialogue in favor of narration that gives the whole short the odd feeling of a bedtime story. Add in some of the best compositions in the film, including several revolving around a red coat iconic enough to wind up on the film's French poster, and this is certainly in the top tier of Paris, je t'aime.

* * * * *

Place de Victoires, written and directed by Suwa Nobuhiro.

Peculiar and lifeless, this is the story of Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), whose young son has recently died, shattering her faith in a loving God. At the risk of seeming like an asshole, it's the sort of role that Binoche can play in her sleep, and that is apparently what she is doing here. Midway through, she has a vision of a cowboy (Willem Dafoe) who offers her one last visit with her child before he passes on.

Inherently, there's nothing wrong with that story, but it's carried off without a hint of grace. Suwa is yet another director that I've never seen, and I'm not sure that this is a strong argument that I want to; he treats magical realism like neorealism, and grinds the life out of the story in the process.

* * * * *

Tour Eiffel, written and directed by Sylvain Chomet.

When I heard that the mind behind Les triplettes des Belleville had a segment in Paris, je t'aime, I had a ready-made "most anticipated" short, and it does not disappoint. This is the French-est of all segments, by which I mean, it is about mimes. Beyond that, it's just like his animation, only live action, which is as much to say that it's not really possibly to describe it in writing.

* * * * *

Parc Monceau, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón.

This is very nearly the most disappointing segment. In one seven-minute take, we see an old man (Nick Nolte) and a young woman (Ludivine Sagnier) setting up what appears to be an assignation. They spend most of those seven minutes in low lighting. As one moment in a feature, this could have been a brilliant moment (and Cuarón demonstrated only months after this film's premiere that he knows from brilliant use of long takes), but as a stand-alone, it feels like the director forgot that he had to present a film until the evening before it was due. There's no emotional anything here, and the "naturalistic" dialogue feels canned.

* * * * *

Quartier des Enfants Rouges, written and directed by Olivier Assayas.

Liz, an American actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal), needs heroin, and she needs affection, and she tries to get both from Ken (Lionel Dray), to such a point that she buys drugs just to see him; but he's a bit of an oblivious asshole, and things go wrong. This is the single example of something that I expected to be pervasive: it's so interesting and compelling that I want to see the rest of this story. As the opening scene of a feature, I love it, but it doesn't tell a complete story.

Ah, well, Assayas is consistently a better director than writer, even in six minute chunks.

* * * * *

Place des fêtes, written and directed by Oliver Schmitz.

Packs a surprising amount of narrative layering into just a few minutes: Hassan (Seydou Boro) flirts with Sophie (Aïssa Maïga), she humors him, we note that he is bleeding, she is an EMT, and the film spins around like a seedling of Last Year at Marienbad to show how all of this is the result of their first and only prior meeting.

This is a textbook case of characters caught in the wrong plot; both Boro and Maïga are fantastic in the scant few minutes we get to spend with them, but the direction Schmitz takes them is entirely unimaginative. It's more frustrating than enlightening to see the causal link that ties the two characters, because it's so deeply contrived. The most forgettable segment in the project.

* * * * *

Pigalle, written and directed by Richard LaGravenese.

A journey into the famous whore pits of Paris with Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant, and the success of the segment is due entirely to the fact that you're watching Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant. LaGravenese is historically a fairly middleweight writer, and historically he's hardly a director at all, so it should be no surprise that he doesn't do much of anything interesting; in particular the final moments are carried off so clumsily, and to so little effect, that I laughed involuntarily at the sheer absurdity of it all.

That said, Hoskins and Ardant are great performers, and if nothing else, the sight of Hoskins in the red light district gave me happy Mona Lisa flashbacks.

* * * * *

Quartier de la Madeleine, written and directed by Vincenzo Natali.

I wouldn't have guessed that one of the very best segments in the feature would have come out of the man who made Cube, of all damn things, but there you have it. I was impressed enough by the aggressively stylized film noir flavor of the first moments. in which a backpacking Elijah Wood stumbles nervously through the dark streets, but then it goes and turns into a vampire story. At this moment, you're thinking one of two things: A fucking vampire movie? or A fucking vampire movie! I thought the latter, and nobody will ever tell me that I'm wrong. Great use of oversaturated reds, for what it's worth.

* * * * *

Père-Lachaise, written and directed by Wes Craven.

Awful. Simply awful, and that pains me to say about a director that I'm something of an apologist for. Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell play an engaged couple touring the most famous cemetery in the world, where she realizes that she can't love him because he's not as witty as Oscar Wilde.

Besides its dim view of female intelligence, the short suffers from an aggressively twee sense of fun that never comes even close to equalling "good humor." It's not funny for one split second, it needs to be funny throughout, and that turns into a sour bit of idiotic farce. And this is all before Alexander Payne's incredibly strange cameo.

* * * * *

Fauborg Saint-Denis, written and directed by Tom Tykwer.

I am all but certain that this segment is not as good as I think it is, but its proximity to Craven's misfire makes it seem like the textbook definition of High Art. Melchior Beslon plays a blind student who falls in love with an actress (Natalie Portman), who finds himself recalling the entire arc of their relationship in the instant when she calls to tell him that it's over.

This recollection takes the form of a very high-energy sequence of repeated motifs and narrative phrases that flash by at just about the fastest speed we could expect to fully process them. Of all the segments, this is the one that demands the most attention and I applaud Tykwer for that. But why did he have to go and ruin it with the most ill-considered ending of all 18 shorts?

* * * * *

Quartier Latin, directed by Gérard Depardieu and Frédéric Auburtin, written by Gena Rowlands.

An old American man comes to Paris to meet his wife for the first time since she moved there years ago. They are getting divorced. They try to be nice at first, then they trade affectionate barbs, then the barbs get a bit less affectionate and a bit more venomous.

So no, nothing happens, but one does not care very much because that old man and woman are played by Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands, turning this segment into a distaff John Cassavetes homage, with all the rigourous acting and curdled misanthropy that implies. "Curdled misanthropy" is a compliment, there.

Unfortunately, the two directors do not add up to their extraordinary progenitor, and the short lacks even the slightest visual imagination. But it doesn't matter. Seeing those amazing human beings onscreen is nothing shy of a privilege.

* * * * *

14e arrondissement, written and directed by Alexander Payne.

Pride of place makes this final episode seem a bit more profound than it actually is, but it serves as such a fine conclusion: Margo Martindale plays Francine, a middle-aged American tourist reciting an essay on her Parisian vacation to her French language class, mangling said language beyond hope in the process. It being a Payne film, there's a lot of not-quite-laughing at her general pathetic helplessness.

But, being a Payne film, there's a surprising hidden humanity there, too, as Francine (whose life, we gather, has been colorless since birth) comes to fall in love with the city of light itself. It's the emotional core of the whole damn feature, which is after all titled I Love You, Paris, and it's probably the most emotionally fulfilling moment in the whole two hour affair. I've already given out the "Best Segment" award, but this one runs a close second; and it's the only short whose absence would noticeably detract from Paris, je t'aime and its effect at the basic conceptual level.

* * * * *

And with some wordless framing footage out of the way, we're done. "Fall in love with Paris 18 times," proclaims the advertising. Maybe not, but it's obvious that the films were all made by people who did love Paris, each in their own way, and if that doesn't make this a masterpiece to end all masterpieces, it's still a fantastic travelogue.

8/10

4 comments:

Cameron said...

i'm going to play Pat King here for a second, and complain that you didn't give it a number score =(

but! i saw it last night! and it was so much fun! and i loved the mime one the most!

Pat "Souljacker" King said...

I'm also going to play Pat King! And ask why the order of the shorts was chosen non-arbitrarily. It SEEMS kinda arbitrary. Or do you mean non as in nonet? Nine-arbitrarily? Well I guess I just don't understand.

Tim said...

I mean to say that the tone of the shorts more or less flowed, with the singular exception of running from the Coen film to the Salles film. Nothing felt out of place, and in that way was non-arbitrary.

Tim said...

Also: 8/10