Even for someone such as myself who has never been to the City of Light, “Paris, Je T’aime” is a masterful achievement, both as a film and as a heartfelt love letter to one of the world’s most romantic cities.
The two-hour film consists of 18 brief stories, each set in a different section of Paris and each made by a different filmmaker. Three vignettes were made by pairs, for a total of 21 directors involved in the project, plus a 22nd who worked on the brief transitions between films. The list is impressive, with men and women who are household names (Wes Craven, the Coen Brothers), popular in certain circles (Tom Tykwer, Gus Van Sant, Alexander Payne), known elsewhere but not in the U.S. (Olivier Assayas, Sylvain Chomet), and utterly unfamiliar (Oliver Schmitz, Vincenzo Natali). There are some who are primarily known for things other than directing, including actor Gerard Depardieu, writer Richard LaGravenese, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. The directors hail from 10 different countries, from France to South Africa to Brazil to Japan.
Are you not intrigued to see how almost two dozen artists with very different backgrounds would approach the project? Can 18 directors or pairs of directors produce stories that will blend well with the other filmmakers’ work? When you make a stew, you can’t just randomly throw ingredients into the pot. Who’s to say an Alfonso Cuaron film will complement, rather than clash with, a Walter Salles production?
They evidently had free rein to do as they pleased, and among the 18 short films are to be found almost that many different styles, tones, and perspectives. The one thing they have in common is the Parisian setting and the general theme of love. And while not every one of the 18 vignettes is memorable, and while a few are more noticeably ill-fitting than others, as a whole they convey an extraordinary affection for Paris and a love of storytelling. Nobody’s making money on a low-budget art film with 22 credited directors. You do something like this purely for the fun of it — and when the filmmaker is having fun, so is the audience.
A sample of some of the film’s many pleasures:
– Isabel Coixet (“The Secret Life of Words,” “My Life Without Me”) presents a sweet story about a man (Sergio Castellitto) who is considering leaving his wife (Miranda Richardson) until he learns she has leukemia.
– Two mimes (Paul Putner and Yolande Moreau) fall amusingly in love, punctuated by sound effects to match their miming actions, in a contribution from Sylvain Chomet (“The Triplets of Belleville”).
– One segment has a horror/fantasy twist and involves vampires — and it’s not the segment directed by Wes Craven. His is a comedy about a humorless man (Rufus Sewell) who is inspired by the ghost of Oscar Wilde (Alexander Payne) to become funnier.
– Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”) shoots his film entirely in one unbroken take, with a young woman (Sara Martins) discussing her life with her American father (Nick Nolte), who is visiting her and trying to speak French.
– An American actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal) looks for love and drugs from the same source.
– Joel and Ethan Coen use Steve Buscemi (one of their favorites) as a tourist who unintentionally comes between an amorous young couple at a subway station.
Recognizable actors such as Bob Hoskins, Ben Gazzara, Elijah Wood, Emily Mortimer, Gena Rowlands, Natalie Portman, Willem Dafoe, and Juliette Binoche appear in various scenes, as do a number of French actors who will be mostly unfamiliar to American audiences.
Though the characters don’t overlap from one film to the next, there is the sense that they all exist at the same time in the same city. We feel like they’re all connected somehow, joined by their common humanity and by their struggles, and by the fact that, like all humans, they want to love and be loved in return.
The last segment is from Alexander Payne (“About Schmidt,” “Sideways”), and it’s a poignant finale about a middle-aged Denver mail carrier named Carol (Margo Martindale) who comes to Paris on vacation by herself. In narration, we hear her reporting back to her adult-education French class, in her broken, humorous French, about the trip. The feeling of experiencing so much beauty but having no one to share it with is bittersweet, and it has a profound impact on Carol, as well as on the viewer.
Being a mixture of comedy and drama and of sadness and epiphany, Carol’s story is a fitting conclusion to the film, which has been a satisfying journey through all sorts of stories and emotions. It will send you out of the theater smiling, and maybe thinking that even if you’ve never been there, you love Paris a little bit, too.
B+ (1 hr., 56 min.; mostly French with subtitles; )