They'll always have 'Paris'
18 vignettes about Paris, from directors like the Coen Brothers ('Fargo') and Walter Salles ('Central Station').
"Paris Je T'Aime" is the concoction of producer Tristan Carne, who envisioned directors from around the world contributing vignettes about Paris each lasting no more than five minutes. The result is 18 minimovies celebrating Paris's 20 arrondissements (neighborhoods)and it's predictably hit and miss.
As is true of virtually all episodic films, the lurch from story to story can get wearying, especially if too many duds follow in a row. The saving grace is that even when the segments aren't good, they are at least stylistically very different from each other. How could this not be with a directorial roster that runs the gamut from the Coen Brothers ("Fargo") to Walter Salles ("Central Station")?
As the stories begin to play out, it soon becomes clear that this is not going to be one of those sticky valentines to the City of Lights. That means no loving close-ups of the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe. A more unfamiliar Parisian terrain is on display. The majority of the directors are not from France and came to Paris while they were writing the script or just before shooting started. They present an outsider's vision.
Given the sheer volume of stories in "Paris Je T'Aime," reading a checklist of my picks could get pretty wearying, too. So I'll single out a few from both ends of the spectrum.
On the negative side is Christopher Doyle's "Porte de Choisy," a tutti-frutti fizzle about a hair-product salesman in a Chinese beauty parlor. I guess Doyle was trying to cross Hong Kong chop- socky with a spangly MGM musical, but who knows?
Vincento Natali's "Quartier de la Madeleine" stars Elijah Wood as a vampire. Fangs do not become him. Wes Craven's "Père-Lachaise," about a nattering encounter between an engaged couple, takes place in front of Oscar Wilde's tomb. Too bad Wilde wasn't on hand to provide better dialogue.
The best episodes, however, have the emotional resonance of full-length features, and yet I didn't want them to be a moment longer than they are.
In Olivier Assayas's "Quartier Des Enfants Rouges," Maggie Gyllenhaal is extraordinary as a wayward American actress on location. The Coen Brothers segment, "Tuileries," has Steve Buscemi as a US visitor to the Metro who makes the mistake of making eye contact with a couple having a lovers' quarrel. In an instant, the hoody boyfriend is in Buscemi's face. It's like a worst-case scenario for tourists. In his American movies, Buscemi always seems like a stranger in a strange land. In Paris, his cluelessness is especially comic – and touching.
In Oliver Schmitz's "Place des Fêtes," a young medic (Aïssa Maïga) attends to an immigrant (Seydou Boro) from Lagos who has just been stabbed by a thug. Both actors have enormously expressive faces. The vignette is a demonstration of how violence and compassion can well up without warning and change our lives forever.
Hokey but fun, "Quartier Latin" was co-directed by Frédéric Auburtin and Gérard Depardieu (who has a small role in it). It was written by Gena Rowlands, who costars with Ben Gazzara as a soon-to-be-divorced couple hashing things out in a bar. These old pro actors don't miss a trick. They know how to play people who are so wise to each other that no amount of camouflage can conceal their hearts.
Best of all is Alexander Payne's "14ème Arrondissement," which closes out the film. Margo Martindale is a middle-age Denver postal worker who is visiting Paris alone and enjoying every minute of it. Her voice-over commentary, delivered in bad French in the form of a letter, is not played for laughs. It would have been easy for Payne to take pot shots at this dowdy unsophisticate but he has far too much affection for her dreams to make that mistake. Grade: B+
• Rated R for language and brief drug use.