PARIS, JE T'AIMENR
Paris--with its dramatic grey skies, labyrinth of quaint streets, and endless couples leaning over café tables to canoodle--is a city that sets romantic imaginations on fire. And so comes along Paris, je t'aime, an anthology film in which directors from various countries each offer a short segment on love taking place in a specific neighborhood of the City of Lights.
As is the case with most movies like this, the result is an uneven and unwieldy hodgepodge of visions and styles that collectively carry a faint whiff of futility. Some of the films deal with romantic love, others with familial love, though not all of them seem linked to their Parisian setting beyond visual shorthand (There's the Eiffel Tower! Voilà, the Seine! Isn't that the Bastille?) that reminds us where we are. More notably, while some of the filmmakers convey a nostalgic, Amélie Poulain-esque affection for the city, others aim for a more topical--and critical--spin on the current French reality. In other words, the title is misleading and not entirely appropriate; the film feels more like Paris, Some Love You, Others Think You Stink.
A propos, there are a fair number of stinkers in the bunch: Bend it Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha's take on France's Muslim headscarf debate plays like a painfully earnest anti-racism advertisement; a segment by Nobihuro Suwa starring Juliette Binoche as a grief-stricken mother and Willem Dafoe as a cowboy who looks after dead children (don't ask) bloats its allotted five-minute running time with pretentiousness; Alfonso Cuarón plops Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier into a lovely tracking shot and promptly strands them in a dead-end dialogue with the cheapest kind of payoff; Richard LaGravanese turns what should have been the savory pairing of Fanny Ardant and Bob Hoskins into a stale, vaguely awkward romantic duel. The bad news is that the list goes on.
The good news is that a handful of directors manage to work their magic, reclaiming the exercise from terminal pointlessness. Walter Salles gives us a near-wordless, beautifully shot glimpse of an immigrant (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who leaves her own child at daycare to look after a wealthy woman's baby in the swanky 16th arrondissement. In his Le Marais contribution, Gus Van Sant captures an offbeat moment of gay flirtation when a new-agey Parisian hipster-artist (Gaspard Ulliel, hiding behind some major bangs) chats up a shy American printshop apprentice who barely understands a word. The Coen Brothers milk culture shock for bracingly funny slapstick in their Tuileries segment, in which a tourist's worst paranoid travel fears all come true within a few minutes. (Bonus: The tourist is played by Steve Buscemi and it's his trademark bug-eyed stare that sets things off.) Olivier Assayas does a fidgety piece in Le Quartier des Enfants Rouges about an American actress on location (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her local hash dealer; the filmmaker nails the conflicting pulls of attraction and mistrust typical of cross-cultural romance, as well as the almost tragicomic potential for missed signals.
Best of all is Alexander Payne's 14th arrondissement, in which a lumpy, single, middle-aged Middle American woman (the marvelous Margo Martindale) takes a vacation in Paris, and--in the segment's stroke of genius--narrates her trip in heavily accented French voiceover (a composition read aloud to her French class). The joke would have been easy (overweight Yankee armed with a fanny pack takes to the stylish Parisian streets), but it turns out the joke's on us: The character is, in fact, an ideal traveler, a woman both pragmatic and deeply alive to everything around her. The segment culminates in a moment of sublime emotion; Payne goes right to the heart of this woman, suggests the glorious sense of possibility inherent in traveling, and, more than any other filmmaker on display, makes the City of Lights seem magical indeed.