Twenty different directors tackle 18 of Paris’ most distinctive neighborhoods with close to 20-20 artistic vision in “Paris je t’aime.” Omnibus — with the City of Lights as its milieu and love as its raison d’etre — is uneven but quite pleasant as a two-hour experience that acknowledges the idealized Paris people carry in their heads while wisely veering off the beaten track. International roster of helmers, most of them working with local techies, assures warranted curiosity among the film-savvy — the lure of Paris itself should do the rest. Pic opens in Gaul June 21 following its Un Certain Regard preem at Cannes.
Picture postcard overviews establish the ambient beauty quotient of Paris. They are followed by capsule views in a tic-tac-toe split screen format.
Fears that the venture might be a series of glorified ads quickly dissipate as good actors portraying (mostly) real people are given the figurative floor. Each seg, set in one of the neighborhoods within the city’s official administrative districts, is pinpointed with the name of the vicinity and the corresponding director superimposed over an establishing shot.
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Each seg was written or co-written by its helmer, except “Quartier Latin,” which was penned by Gena Rowlands but co-helmed by Gerard Depardieu and Frederic Auburtin. Most are in French, with three in English and a few a mixture of the two languages.
Some installments boast definite punchlines, while others capture a mood or offer up an open-ended slice of life.
The 18 episodes have been strung together in an order that feels right, balanced about as well as can be hoped for with no real narrative cement except the umbrella brief to make a five minute love story in the assigned quarter.
With a light touch and an eye for the glories of a sunny day, Gurinder Chadha offers a pitch-perfect commentary on the idiocy of religious and racial stereotyping in “Quais de Seine.” Steve Buscemi’s majestic schleppiness anchors Joel and Ethan Coen’s comic slam dunk in “Tuileries,” set in the Metro station of that name.
On the infinitely more poignant front, Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas paint a wrenching portrait of the gulf between a poor immigrant servant’s (Catalina Sandino Moreno) experience of motherhood and that of her employer in “Loin du 16eme.” “Bastille” is Isabelle Coixet’s intensely bittersweet take on a man (Sergio Castellitto) about to leave his wife (Miranda Richardson) for his mistress (Leonor Watling).
The power of even the briefest of human interactions and the fall-out of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are communicated with depth and economy in “Place des Fetes” by Olivier Schmitz. Olivier Assayas’ “Quartier des Enfants Rouges” is like a revisiting of helmer’s “Irma Vep” a decade later, with a few notes borrowed from “Clean.”
In “Tour Eiffel,” Sylvain Chomet, the gifted animator of “The Triplettes of Belleville” fame, lenses live actors for the first time, imbuing them with much of the off-kilter humor that’s his trademark. “Cube” helmer Vicenzo Natali’s ominously scored and dialogue-free vampire riff “Quartier de la Madeleine” doesn’t really jell despite an earnest perf by Elijah Wood but proves an amusing lead-in to Wes Craven’s “Pere-Lachaise.” Although viewers might expect something sinister, Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell inhabit a sweetly spirited look at how the dead can goose the living.
A freshly beefed up Gaspard Ulliel delivers a frank and yearning monologue to a printshop staffer (Elias McConnell) in Gus Van Sant’s “Le Marais.” Lensing is more conventional than the dreamy-yet-controlled meanderings of Van Sant’s last few features. Blink and you’ll miss Marianne Faithful.
Christopher Doyle’s ambitious genre-melee, “Porte de Choisy” is set in Chinatown but all over the map as Barbet Schroeder plays a hair care products rep.
Alfonso Cuaron plays with sound, space and viewer assumptions in a long tracking shot with a mild twist as his camera follows Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier in “Parc Monceau.” Fanny Ardant and Bob Hoskins play a couple unsure just how theatrical their sex lives should be in Richard LaGravanese’s piquant if uneven “Pigalle.”
Weakest — but still watchable — entries are Bruno Podalydes’ harmlessly amusing “Montmartre”; Nobuhiro Suwa’s overwrought look at parental grief, “Place des Victoires” starring Juliette Binoche and Willem Dafoe; and Tom Tykwer’s “Faubourg Saint-Denis” which chronicles a sudden glitch in the storybook romance between a blind French student of languages (Melchior Beslon) and an American actress (Natalie Portman).
Rowlands and Ben Gazzara get excellent mileage out of a cafe appointment with edgy yet affectionate sparring in “Quartier Latin.”
Alexander Payne skillfully condenses the tone of his feature work into the closing seg, “14th Arrondissement,” in which Margo Martindale shines as a middle-aged letter carrier from Denver narrating her solo trip to Paris in French.
Interstitial shots of Paris and coda in which certain characters cross paths don’t add much and veer dangerously close to saccharine. But project — four years in the making –avoided most pitfalls and turned out better than average.