The Exquisite Films of Paris

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Frederique Barraja / Victoires International / First Look

Emily Mortimer as Frances and Rufus Sewell as William in Wes Craven's 'Père-Lachaise' segment of the movie Paris, Je T'Aime

How wonderful to be a filmmaker in Paris! Every morning you step out the door into the greatest standing set in the world. It's not just the places all of us tourists know — the Tuileries, the Eiffel Tower, the Latin Quarter — it's the anonymous streets where the food in the humblest bistro makes your mouth water, the women are always pert and smartly dressed, the men rueful and wise. Everything and everyone merely awaits further transformation by the cinematographer's glamorizing light. Even a sad story does not seem quite so doleful in this context.

Paris, Je T'Aime offers the (brief) pleasures of a Paris shoot to an international gang of directors and a bunch of good actors — some well-known, some less so — who have contributed 18 short films, some no more than inconsequential vignettes, other rather nicely worked out short stories, to this largely festive enterprise. All of them are handsomely mounted — Air France should work out a promotional deal with the producers — and they are variable in quality. But even when one of the pieces stutters, stammers or just lies deathly still, we are consoled by our knowledge that it will not trifle with us for very long. And by the fact that there is an excellent likelihood that it will soon be replaced by something more engaging.

I particularly liked the Coen Brothers piece about an American tourist (Steve Buscemi), waiting for a Metro train, who does not heed his guidebook's advice (don't make eye contact with strangers) with comic-violent results, Wes Craven's work about a pair of bickering British tourists visiting Oscar Wilde's grave site in the Père-Lachaise cemetery with romantically restorative results, and Tom Twyker's take on a faltering love affair between a pair of young people, one of whom is blind, yet is also a brave and wily navigator of the sighted world. There's even a piece by Sylvain Chomet, about a mime — yes, I know, but set your prejudices aside — finding true love that has a sort of wayward charm.

Finally, a little masterpiece lurks here. It is called 14eme Arrondissement by Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways). It consists of no more than a middle-aged Denver woman (Margo Martindale) wandering around the city and reflecting on its sights and her life in her awkward, self-taught French. There's innocence, honesty, sadness and resolve. There's also a wonderful lack of irony or patronization in Payne's treatment of this story, an artlessness in Martindale's performance that is exemplary. It's the last work in Paris, Je T'Aime and its worth waiting for. It's worth the price of admission, too.

There seems to be something in Paris air or water that encourages compendium filmmaking — multiple characters and multiple stories. Paris, Je T'Aime may be the grandest such work currently on view, but it is not the only one. You may recall the recent Avenue Montaigne, in which a young waitress finds herself mixed up with an insecure actress, a great pianist withdrawing from performing and an art collector selling his collection. It has a chipper spirit, and, in the end, things work out all right for all concerned, yet it also carries with it an air of regret, a sense that life is harder, less rewarding than its many characters would like it to be. It's a movie the regretful spirit of which is somewhat at odds with its blithe manner.

Something similar might be said of the more aspiring Private Fears in Public Places, an unlikely adaptation by Alain Resnais, once the master of such high art revels as Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour, of a play by Alan Ayckbourn, a farceur who has always loved, sometimes to excess, the intricate braiding of characters and story lines. Everything in this movie seems to have been made on a soundstage and, for reasons best known to the director, his Paris is caught in a perpetual blizzard; it goes on for the several days consumed by the plot, yet it never seems to accumulate or alarm any of the film's characters. It must be symbolic, but of what, precisely, Resnais never hints.

Curiously, that's all right with us. His well-particularized people include a real estate salesman who vaguely lusts after his assistant, who is both a religious fanatic and, more secretively, an erotic dancer. She is drawn to a soulful bartender, whose insane father, heard but never seen, she tends in the evenings. The bartender, in turn, is the confidant of an unemployed former soldier whose fiancée is one of the realtor's clients. The realtor's beautiful, inexplicably lonely sister, incidentally, almost hooks up with the sometime soldier. But that doesn't work out, either.

In fact, nothing works out in this movie. At its end, everyone is pretty much at the same point they were when we met them. Yet, for all its inconclusiveness, this is a curiously entertaining film. Its sets may be visibly false, but there is something truthful about its message: it is saying that big cities — even heartbreakingly beautiful ones like Paris — conspire to prevent us from making connections that in simpler contexts might easily be made. Private Fears in Public Places, is a sad, wry, yet not entirely devastating contemplation of the loneliness of cities and of the little, self-absorbed lives that they shelter.

Admittedly, you might have more fun at The Valet, a deft, daft, totally unbelievable yet somehow totally engaging comedy, in which a rich guy (Daniel Auteuil) tries to fool his wife into believing that his drop-dead, supermodel mistress (Elena Simonsen) is really in love with Fran&ecedil;ois (Gad Elmaleh) a not too smart parking boy at a posh restaurant. It's totally preposterous, but everyone is really rather reasonable, patient and lovable in an idiotic situation. Tales like this used to be known as boulevard comedies and, you have to say, Paris has the boulevards to sustain them. Especially when it's springtime and the city sparkles in a fresh light and, sacre bleu, there is always a parking spot available in front of the building the characters need to enter. That, friends, is the truly perfect urban fantasy.