Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Film for Lovers: Paris Je T'aime

So yeah, as I said last week, I was planning on doing a series of posts on love-themed cinema for Valentine's Day this year. Of course, V-Day's in only three days now, so I'm a little late in getting to that. (I've been keeping myself distracted with Spaced on DVD at night lately anyway, because Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright are fantastic. As is Jessica Hynes.) At any rate, I'm kicking off these posts (I'm hoping to get 3 or 4 done for this series in total, with the last one perhaps being posted late on the 14th - likely technically in the early morning on the 15th.) with a look at the veritable platter of love-themed cinematic hors d'oeuvres that is Paris, Je T'aime.

The 2006 film consists of 18 short films (Or arrondissements) by 22 different directors spanning roughly two hours, each between four and seven minutes. Within these few minutes, each director tells an intimate and quirky little bite-size tale of love between a couple of characters in different locations throughout Paris - and this isn't your Hollywood's Paris, either. Each of these directors pouring their artistic passions into these personal love letters to both the city of love and love itself, you get very different perspectives on the tiny slices of the city you see from film to film as the movie plays out.

The film opens with Montmartre, a short by writer/director Bruno Podalydès and even starring Podalydès himself as a bitter man who parks his car on a Montmartre street and comes to the aid of a passing woman (Florence Muller) who faints nearby. Montmartre opens the film with a short tale of hope and connection for a bitter man in a gentle and pleasant start to Paris Je T'aime as a whole.

From there, we're taken to a tale of young people connecting with a cross-cultural undertone in Quais de Seine, a film by the married team of American screenwriter Paul Mayeda Berges and Indian-British director Gurinder Chadha. The short focuses on a young man (Cyril Descours) harassing passing women by the Seine river who ends up drawn to and connecting with a clumsy, charming Muslim girl (Leïla Bekhti) irritated by his friends' behavior. The short has a sort of "this could be the start of something beautiful" feel to it, in its charming leads and the sort of cross-cultural connection never seen in mainstream cinema.

The matter of cross-culturalism comes up again in the third short, American director Gus Van Sant's Le Marais. This film focuses on a young man (Gaspard Ulliel) drawn to another (Elias McConnell) working in a print shop, and his efforts to explain the intense feeling he was getting that the other young man was his soulmate. All while unaware, of course, that the other young man didn't speak much French. A charming short film of unaware miscommunication of strong feelings, and Paris Je T'aime's inclusion of a same-sex romantic connection as well, as love is naturally limited to no one sexual orientation.

The Coen brothers made the fourth short, Tuileries, a more physical and comical film. An American tourist (Steve Buscemi) waits for the Paris Metro to arrive at the Tuileries station and makes the mistake of making eye contact with a turbulent couple making out on a bench across the station. A short with the kind of comical execution that perhaps only Steve Buscemi could have pulled off as well as he did. Short and simple as the film is, it's quite enjoyable, and helped to raise my opinion of the Coens again after how disappointed I was by their recent Burn After Reading, which simply failed to satisfy as a farce or entertaining piece of cinema in general.

The fifth film, Loin du 16e, focused solely on a young mother (Catalina Sandino Moreno, whose performance in Maria Full of Grace I've been meaning to see.) singing a Spanish lullaby to her baby before leaving it in a daycare center. We watch her daily commute through Paris before she arrives at her wealthy employers' and sings the same lullaby to their infant. A simple story, but beautiful to watch unfold.

And the six, Porte de Choisy, was directed by Australian director and brilliant cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and written by Doyle himself along with Gabrielle Keng and Kathy Li. This comical short focuses on a beauty product salesman (Barbet Schroeder) making a sales call on a Chinatown salon run by an imposing and difficult woman (Li Xin). This one's definitely gotten some mixed reactions online due to the surreal, non-linear approach to the narrative, focusing more on strange and mesmerizing Chinese imagery (No doubt influenced by Doyle's long track record of phenomenal cinematography in noteworthy Asian films, including work with directors like Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-Wai, and Pen-ek Ratanaruang.) than telling an overly cohesive story. What I recommend with this one is letting go of your senses and and simply letting the atmosphere of the film and its visuals draw you into its world. It's a strange, short trip, and certainly a memorable one.

Bastille, the short by Spanish writer-director Isabel Coixet, feels much like the quintessential European art art house film crammed into a few minutes. She approaches the story through a detached, cerebral third person omniscient narrator who tells the story we watch unfold of a man (Sergio Castellitto) preparing to leave his wife (Miranda Richardson) for a younger woman when she reveals that she is dying of a terminal illness. Immediately sympathetic, the man breaks things off with his lover and stays with his life, rediscovering his love for her after some effort. A very bittersweet and touching little story.

Japanese writer-director Nobuhiro Suwa takes Paris, Je T'aime someplace even more melancholy with Place des Victoires. A mother (Juliette Binoche) grieves the death of her young son (Martin Combes) and finds herself walking into a sort of fantasy vision of her little boy playing in a nearby city square, where they meet a cowboy (Willem Dafoe) who arrives to comfort them and escort the boy to the beyond. It all boils down to a simple, but emotionally gripping naturalistic fantasy sequence carried by the emotional weight in Juliette Binoche's performance. Place des Victoires adds much to the emotional range of the film project.

The emotional heft of the previous two films is balanced out by Tour Eiffel, a humorous and visually gripping piece by French animator Sylvain Chomet. Though performed in live action, the entire short feels much like a children's cartoon as a young boy tells the tale of his parents - both mimes - met in prison and fell in love. This one will undoubtedly put a smile on your face. (Unless you hate mimes, in which case it might just give you the willies. (Which is also a turn of phrase people should use more often.))

Mexican writer-director Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) made the next short, Parc Monceau. The entirety of this film's story is told in a single continuous shot as an older man (Nick Nolte) and a younger woman (Ludivine Sagnier) meet and walk down a sidewalk in Parc Monceau while discussing a third person - a Gaspard - who would likely have a problem with their meeting. Throughout the short, you're left trying to figure out the relationship between these two characters and identity of Gaspard, but I won't reveal that here, simply because it's worth seeing for yourself to find out in how well done the script was. Another enjoyable little look at a different variety of love.

French writer-director Olivier Assayas' Quartier des Enfants Rouges tells the story of an American actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who buys some hashish from a dealer (Lionel Dray), who becomes enamored with her. Like the others, there's a very naturalistic chemistry between the characters in this short that only elevates the short, and there's a fantasy costume element that adds a degree of surreality to the unfolding narrative.

German writer-director Oliver Schmitz's Place des fêtestakes the film back to darker territory again. The story focuses on a dying Nigerian man (Seydou Boro) attended to by a paramedic (Aïssa Maïga) whom he'd met and fallen in love with at first sight before. In a surreal, jolting fashion, we walk back through his memories in a manner reminiscent of Michel Gondry's directorial approach to the lucid memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind and jump back to the present as his mental condition deteriorates. An absolutely heartbreaking little film.

The next short, Pigalle, by American writer-director Richard LaGravenese, has a bit more of a classical American cinema feel to it. The story focuses on an elderly couple (Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant) acting out a fantasy argument in front of a prostitute in Paris in order to keep the spark alive in their marriage. Just the sort of thing you could see Americans doing. Overall, I actually think this is one of the weaker links in the film - largely because the premise feels slightly contrived to me - but it's still not bad, either.

Canadian writer-director Vincenzo Natali takes things back into lovely and strange territory after our brief American interlude with Quartier de la Madeleine. One of the most visually stylized shorts in Paris Je T'aime, the film comes off as a fun tribute to early cinema - in particular, Nosferatu, which birthed the vampire genre. A backpacker tourist (Elijah Wood) witnesses a killing by a vampire (Olga Kurylenko) and enchanted, offers himself to her. Stunned, she resists, but after slipping on the previous victim's blood and falling down the concrete stairs he'd recently ascended, an unconventional and vicious romance began between the two. There's a definite quirky sweetness beneath the spooky and slightly gruesome filming to the film. I'd take this kind of vampire love story over adolescent garbage like Twilight any day.

American writer-director Wes Craven departs from his usual horror offerings with Père-Lachaise. The film focuses on a young English couple (Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell) visiting Père Lachaise Cemetery. After the woman leaves her fiance over being fed up with his humorlessness, he hits his head on a tombstone and receives advice from Oscar Wilde (director Alexander Payne) that allows him to redeem himself. A short and sweet little film, different from anything I was expecting to see from Wes Craven, certainly. Payne's cameo's amusing, and Emily Mortimer's charm carries the short.

German writer-director Tom Tykwer - a personal favorite - made the next short, Faubourg Saint-Denis. The short is both ambitious in scope and execution, essentially being told in the sort of hyperkinetic flashback montage Tykwer's mastered in his films. A young blind man (Melchior Beslon, who was also in the excellent The Princess and the Warrior) reflects in flashback on the development and decline of his relationship with his girlfriend (Natalie Portman) after it seems she's broken up with him over the phone. Visually arresting and enthralling the whole way through, this is easily one of my favorites in the entirety of Paris Je T'aime, and that's saying something considering how much there is to love in this movie.

Quartier Latin, the next-to-last short, was written by American actress Gena Rowlands and co-directed by Gérard Depardieu and Frédéric Auburtin. This one feels similar to what the Hoskins/Ardant film was going for, but more on-target. It tells the story of an old couple (Ben Gazzara and Rowlands herself) meeting at a bar (Run by Depardieu) for one last drink before divorcing. A film that simply reminds that even in old age, love doesn't necessarily last, and it can spring forth anew for other people. There's no shortage of life in Gazzara and Rowlands' characters, and in general, this is a spirited way to wind down the overall film.

14e arrondissement by American writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways) brings things to a close with a mail carrier named Carol from Denver telling her French class in broken/very-American French about her first trip to Europe, and in particular, what she loved in Paris. It's very funny and very American, but at the same time very sympathetic and human too. A resonant, goofy, touristy way to end things as Feist's performance of "We're All in a Dance" plays - with lyrics in both English and French - as the end credits roll.

All in all, Paris Je T'aime is a perfect film for the Valentine's Day season, celebrating love in the city of love as well as it does in so many ways. A film for lovers of Europe and romance, of mirth and the joy of being alive.

Earlier this month, the producers of Paris Je T'aime released a follow-up short film project in New York, I Love You - more of the same sort of thing, now in New York. I'm looking forward to eventually seeing that (Undoubtedly when it hits DVD) and writing about it here as well.

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