The notion was simple and profound: corral some of the world's finest cineastes and ask each to make a vignette of life in one of the 20 Paris arrondisements (neighborhoods). The only requirements: the episode must be five to seven minutes long, and must have love as its subject. It might be the love of two strangers colliding on the streeet; of a woman for her dead child; the rediscovered devotion of a man thinking of leaving his wife; an engaged couple testing their bond in Père Lachaise cemetery; of a couple long separated and replaying their cutting banter one last time. Without exception, through good episodes and no-so-good ones, the movie is about love of cinema and of the city that gave it birth and was the location and inspiration for many of its masterpieces.
Wouldn't you like to see, in one sitting, the new films from the directors of Fargo, Sideways, Scream, Y tu mama tambien, Bend It Like Beckham, Irma Vep, The Motorcycle Diaries, The Triplets of Belleville and Run, Lola, Run? (For those of you who don't frequent art houses, we speak of Joel and Ethan Coen, Alexander Payne, Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron, Gurinder Chadha, Olivier Assayas, Walter Salles, Sylvain Chomet and Tom Tykwer.) Wouldn't it to lovely to bathe briefly in the radiance of Fanny Ardant, Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi, Sergio Castellito, Willem Dafoe, Ben Gazzara, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Emily Mortimer, Nick Nolte, Natalie Portman, Miranda Richardson, Gena Rowlands, Ludivine Sagnier, Rufus Sewell and Leonor Watling?
Granted, the best thing about a multipart, multi-author film is usually the credits. The various segments don't hang together; often they hang separately. But with its grand theme, Paris, Je t'aime establishes a tone of love, in bloom or suspended animation that for the most part is sustained from one segment to the next. This is a dégustation du chef to savor, a tasting menu of cogent attitudes and poignant images.
1st arrondisement. The Coen brothers crunch their black comedy into a black hole of cross-cultural misunderstandings. Buscemi, whose Coen-nections cover five features, from Miller's Crossing to The Big Lebowski, plays a tourist reading a guidebook in the Paris Metro. "Never make eye contact," the book advises. But it's too late; he has inadvertently done just that with a woman on the opposite platform. Her beau takes offense, and Buscemi finds himself the injured party in a bout of romantic gamesmanship. Nasty, natty fun.
10th arrondisement. Tykwer brings together a budding actress (Portman) and a very capable young blind fellow (Melchior Beslon) and compresses a love affair into a kaleidoscope of speeded-up images. Parisians zip by them on busy streets as the couple hold onto each other for dear love.
12th arrondisement. A man (Castellioto) waits in a cafe for his wife (Richardson); he is about to tell her he's leaving her for a younger woman (Watling). But the wife has news that's even more surprising. Isabel Coixet's fable is about the importance of the external signs of domestic attachment: "And by pretending he was in love with her, he fell in love with her." It's funny and tragic, a tightwire act of laughter and tears.
14th arrondisement. In the Payne sketch, Margo Martindale is a Denver mail carrier on a Paris holiday. Wandering alone through parks in the city whose language she has tried to master (the narration is in hilarious fractured French the kind we speak in restaurants and shops here), she comes to understand the fragile gift of solitude in a big, beautiful city.
19th arrondisement. Just when we were wondering if there were any non-whites in Paris, Oliver Schmitz provided a little epic of the African diaspora in France. In his last moments of life, a wounded man from Lagos is tended by a sympathetic paramedic, also African. Flashbacks paint a tragic few years in a few moments: a job lost, a guitar stolen, a knife in the gut, all given meaning by one sweet brief encounter in a parking garage.
We'd expect that some U.S. distributor will acquire Paris Je t'aime, if only for its art-house marquee value. But it has a greater utility than that. It reminds us of the power of the short story the movie is like a volume of De Maupassant tales and the grace that can coincide with conciseness. It also made this aging movie couple feel, for two hours, like young lovers in Paris.
If you don't love that City of Light, or movies, or love, or all three, then this may not be the blog for you.
Mary Corliss and Richard Corliss