The European (German – French) coproduction, “Paris, Texas,” under the direction of Wim Wenders, is one of the most beautifully lensed films at Cannes – hats off to cinematographer Robby Muller – and the entry is the odds-on favorite to walk away with a top prize at this year’s fest. Nevertheless, at 150 minutes running time, the film takes on epic proportions and will thereby have its difficulties on both the commercial and arthouse circuits, unless it’s whittled down by a half hour (relatively easy during the second half) to maintain the given momentum of the narrative line.
Wenders practically delivered the print to the projectionist from the laboratory, and it’s reliably reported that the original footage ranged in the area of some five hours. Cutting it this close was probably not all that necessary in view of the long weeks he was taken to edit the print, but such timing is of the essence at Cannes.
This is the best Wenders film since “In the Course of Time” (a.k.a. “Kings of the Road,” 1976), with which it has definite affinities. And one should add that finally a European director (living since 1979 in the States) has successfully interpreted America in English for the American arthouse trade. Given half a chance, he could have done the same with “Hammett” (1982), which cost him four years of his creative energies and left little behind except bitter memories. It thus appears that Wenders and his German-American producer, Chris Sievernich, have now evened the score.
“Paris, Texas” is a “road movie” – an odyssey, if you will. It’s a man’s journey to self-recognition, following the ancient formula that has its fulfillment when the awaited deed is done (with or without moral implication). In this case, a young boy of eight is reunited with his mother. That part of the tale is the least interesting, however.
What really impresses is the vision of writer-playwright Sam Shepard, upon whose “Motel Chronicles” short stories the original script was inspired and partially based. If Wenders had stayed close to this inspirational origin, he might have created a masterpiece on the contemporary American experience. Instead, he has dipped into occasional maudlin sentimentality and cliched kidpic routine, too much in this overdrawn version to produce both a critical and commercial winner. All the same, the Cannes cut will please European crowds with their own vicarious views of American life and times. (One will have to wait and see if a new cut hits Yank screens.)
Pic is the story of a man wandering aimlessly along the Texas-Mexican border. When he collapses from exhaustion, a clinical doctor finds a name and address in his pockets and calls the patient’s brother – to determine that Travis has been missing for four years. Travis’ brother in Los Angeles, Walt (conveniently married to a French woman), is a billboard artist who took in the hero’s boy four years ago when the mother literally left him on their doorstep. Now that Travis is back in the picture – he makes the trip to L.A., reluctantly but surely – he decides to win back the love of his son. Once he has done so, the pair’s then off to Houston to find the missing mother, who works in a lonely-hearts kind of strip-joint for lonely individuals with a preference for talking over gawking. Soon the son is reunited with his mother in a modern, Yankee-style skyscraper motel. Travis, however, is mysteriously off in his pickup truck at the close, apparently full aware that amnesia victims or social dropouts don’t have such fortunate rolls of the dice even in films.
Still, this need not be a factual film – European parables on the States are as legitimate as American metaphors about the Continent. What Wenders is apparently trying to say is that alienation and existential angst are just about the same on both sides of the Atlantic. “Paris, Texas,” as even the title hints, equals “Europe, U.S.A.”
It’s indeed a beautiful film, one that will surely convince doubters that Muller is one of the cinema’s best cameramen. He gives the story a surface polish that hints of Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe Americana paintings. Some images are positively breathtaking.
As for Wenders’ casual control of the actors, Dean Stockwell as Walt is a standout, while Harry Dean Stanton as Travis only comes alive in the interim segments when he recovers his taste for humanity. Aurore Clement as Walt’s wife, Anne, fairly steals the show with her modest heart-tugging supportive role, while Nastassja Kinski is hampered in a part that drags the film out interminably during a duolog with Stanton at the end that is supposed to fit all the pieces together (it doesn’t).
“Paris, Texas” is refined arthouse cinema, yet too slow and calculated to score in the boxoffice bigtime – unless a final cut is made.