Sunday, June 03, 2007

Review - Paris je t'aime

How many directors does it take to make a feature film? In the case of Paris, je t'aime, the answer is 21. A diverse army of auteurs has been assembled from all corners of the globe for this intriguing production, and they have each been handed roughly five minutes of celluloid in order to tell a short story about love in Paris. The idea behind Paris je t'aime is for each of the city's arrondissements to be represented by one of the picture's tales; but with two films being dropped before the final edit we are left with 18 shorts which are tightly crammed into just 120 minutes of film. The result is an odd, uneven but ultimately beguiling compendium which is unashamedly romantic and, with such a diverse ranges of styles on offer, guarantees something to please every viewer.

Generally, one approaches a film like this with a fair amount of trepidation. Few of these things are ever really successful and even the better efforts are often hamstrung by at least one dreadful segment (Think of Francis Ford Coppola's ghastly contribution to the otherwise fine New York Stories). Paris je t'aime cleverly manages to avoid most of the pitfalls one might anticipate by keeping everything short and snappy; there are some weak efforts on show here of course, but there aren't any out-and-out stinkers and, with everything zipping by in just a few minutes, none of the entries can be accused of outstaying their welcome.

The film doesn't start particularly well, though, or maybe it just took me a while to adjust to its peculiar nature. Either way, the first three vignettes are three of the film's poorest. French filmmaker Bruno Podalydès didn't do much to grab my interest with the opener, setting up a banal situation and failing to expand on it in any interesting way; and while the second effort, directed by Gurinder Chadha, is a little more interesting, it makes its political points in a rather obvious and dull manner. As I watched Gus van Sant's insipid short pass vapidly in front of my eyes I started to feel a creeping sense of dread, with 15 films yet to come and no sign of anything above the ordinary on the horizon.

Thank heavens for the Coen brothers, who enliven the whole picture with their contribution. Steve Buscemi gives a wonderful dialogue-free performance as an American tourist who gets involved in a terrible mix-up on the Metro, and the film escalates beautifully with surreal touches and great visual gags. This film marks the point at which this whole odd experiment starts to find some sort of direction, and as Paris je t'aime progressed I gradually found myself surrendering to its charms.

The sheer variety on display here is what really makes the film sparkle. The best films in the collection divide sharply into two types: those which succeed because they bear their director's unique fingerprints, and those which triumph through superb acting. In the first category we find Sylvain Chomet's Tour Eiffel, which sees the animator behind Belleville Rendez-Vous making his live-action debut but still working with a cartoonish fervour, and his tale of two mime artists falling in love is a wacky delight. Tom Tykwer's Faubourg Saint-Denis recaptures the kinetic thrill the director displayed in his Run Lola Run as it details relationship between a blind Frenchman and an American actress (Natalie Portman), and Vincenzo Natali's Quartier de la Madeleine is a beautifully-filmed slice of gothic romance. Some directors come unstuck with their attempts at idiosyncrasy though; Christopher Doyle's film has plenty of noise and incident but no cohesion, while Alfonso Cuarón's single-take entry is more notable for its technical skill than the rather dull motions Nick Nolte and Ludivigne Sagnier are asked to go through.

Many of the films are more performance-driven, and there are some wonderful pieces of acting on show here which provide the engine for the stories containing them. See the way Catalina Sandino Moreno's touching performance elevates Walter Salles' simplistic tale, for example, or the way the unlikely pairing of Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant manage to make sparks fly amidst Richard LaGravanese's disappointingly shapeless concoction, or how Maggie Gyllenhaal's sharp display lends Oliver Assayas' film some welcome edge. There is also the opportunity to see some real old-style movie star charisma playing out at a leisurely pace in one of the most low-key shorts, which is also one of the most delightful. Quartier Latin, co-directed by Gerard Depardieu, features Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands as a couple meeting in Paris to sign their divorce papers. This segment was written by Rowlands and it contains some terrifically tart dialogue as these two old pros go head to head, giving Paris je t'aime a welcome touch of Cassavetes spirit.

What else is there? Well, Isabel Coixet offers a sweetly-played story of love rekindled under unlikely circumstances, and Oliver Schmitz's tale is well structured and effective; but there's also the disappointment of seeing Wes Craven making little of his graveyard-set vignette, and the sheer dismay at seeing Juliette Binoche being wasted by Nobuhiro Suwa in a mawkish piece of whimsy. These weak segments don't really detract from the overall package, though; in fact, they oddly add a little something to the film's cumulative charm. By the time Alexander Payne's elegiac, beautifully observed piece had brought the picture to a perfectly-judged close, I felt the whole had grown into something so much more than the sum of its parts. Paris je t'aime shouldn't work at all - it is undeniably inconsistent and overstuffed - but it works better than one could ever imagine, and there's an indefinable sense of magic about it which can suck even the most cynical viewer into its world of wild fantasy and heady romance. For the sake of brevity, let's just say it has a certain je ne sais quoi.