Monday, August 14, 2006

Review: Paris Je t'aime

Paris, Je T'aime: je l'aime plus ou moins

Copyright 2006 by Jayson Harsin
(also published on Bad Subjects)

This is a film of multiple shorts, 20 in fact, by 20 established more or less arty filmmakers, conceived by Tristan Carné & Emmanuel Benbihy. Each short, maximum of five minutes, takes a neighborhood of Paris for its vignette and statement. Unfortunately, most of these stick to well-known neighborhoods in the interntional tourist imagination: Tuileries, Eiffel Tower, Marais, Pigalle, Pêre La Chaise, Montmartre, Montparnasse, Quai de Seine...The ones that ventured into more working class, immigrant or less touristy neighborhoods like Place des Fêtes were among the most creative and moving. Though most dealt with well-known neighborhoods, they often used them to make impressive hardly formulaic stories.

I had several favorites of the bunch. Here are my top three, which barely nudged out Place des Fêtes, a beautiful flashback about a young African immigrant musician stabbed, dying and in love with his paramedic about whom he had just written a love song; and Quai de Seine, a gorgeous intercultural love story.

1. Tour Eiffel. This is a movingly creative short by Sylvain Chomet, which uses the device of a charmingly nerdy schoolboy who tells the camera a la documentary that his parents are in jail. The rest of the short is a flashback showing how his parents landed in jail through a typical day in the life of two atypical parents of the quarter: two mimes. The result is warm hilarity.

2. 14 Arrondissement (Montparnasse and Parc Montsouris): Alexander Payne in Paris. Overtones of About Schmidt galore. Tragi-comic. The main character is a stereotypically overweight but earnest middle-aged, perhaps Middle-West, American woman, in Paris for a week—alone. She narrates her week there, in partly comical fashion, sharing her dedicated attempts to advance her knowledge of and ability in the French language with minimal success (she is answered in English by the shopkeepers she addresses). She is a kind of "everyman," and yet as Payne is brilliant at creating, she is momentarily insightful, about herself, Paris, and humanity, offering fleeting, poignant x-rays of the human condition, that will force tiny tears to the corners of a charitable audience’s eyes.

3. Walter Salles' Loin du 16me is a subtle and haunting micro-Dickensian tale of two cities. Reminiscent of the irony of the discourse about parental responsibility generated around the November 2005 banlieue riots, this short features an immigrant nanny who rises early in the suburbs to leave her child in daycare, only to arrive in the posh 16me to care for the infants of the rich. She sacrifices time raising her own baby in order to afford to raise her and supposedly provide her a good home and future. But the suggestion is that it is the rich infant that will prosper most from her loving attention. The political economy of child care and nurture. Powerful.

Several of the shorts followed the same structural narrative. They told a story that piled up intrigue to a climax, only to undercut the expectations of the narrative and thus of the audience, worthy of a Maupassant short. Other shorts, like Nobuhiro Suwa's Place des Victoires, had potential but despite decent ideas and odd twists end up seeming hackneyed or relying too much on big devices for such small points. For example, Suwa's piece features world cinema bigshots like Juliette Binoche and Wilem Dafoe in a story about a mother drowning in grief for her dead son. Dafoe appears as a kind of otherwordly Charon in Western duds (reminiscent of the bizarre cowboy in Lynch's Mulholland Drive) who appears to comfort Binoche before he ferries her son across Styx to the nether world (but the ferry is a horse, and Styx is a dark alley leading out of the Place). Likewise, the Coen brothers provide a clever meditation on the ugly American tourist (Steve Buscemi) who turns out to be just as hapless as he is ugly, with his bright white sneakers and bag full of tourist kitsch, which, as with other characters in their oeuvre, makes him worthy of ambivalent sympathy. It's hard to imagine the Coen brothers with a different take on the American Tourist.

For some of the films, Paris need not even be the setting, as with, for example, the ridiculous vampire that haunts Madeleine. Furthermore, for some of these films, “Paris, je t’aime” is an ironic device. Clearly, there is plenty to "n'aime pas," given one's knowledge/values/experience/perspective.

Overall, this is a charming film that makes statements about Paris and its place in reflections on both contemporary social life as well as the greater human condition.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Speaking of movie commentary, check out this angry black man's take on a few movie titles:

You'll need to scroll down a little bit, but maybe reading the top couple of posts wouldn't be bad either. One of my FAVORITE blogs.