"Paris, Je t'aime": Je l'aime, plus ou moins
This is a film made up of multiple shorts, the maximum five minutes long, by twenty more or less arty, established filmmakers. Conceived by Tristan Carné and Emmanuel Benbihy, with Olivier Assayas and Frédéric Auburtin credited as Directors, each short that composes the film takes a neighborhood of Paris for its vignette and statement. Unfortunately, most of these segments stick to well-known neighborhoods in the international tourist imagination: Tuileries, Eiffel Tower, Marais, Pigalle, Pêre La Chaise, Montmartre, Montparnasse, Quai de Seine... The ones that ventured into working class, immigrant or less touristy neighborhoods, like Place des Fêtes, were the most creative and moving. Though most segments dealt with well-known neighborhoods, they often used them to make impressive (and hardly formulaic) stories.
My top three favorites shorts begin with "Tour Eiffel", a moving and creative short by Sylvain Chomet, which uses the device of a nerdy schoolboy who tells the camera in documentary style that his parents are in jail. The rest of the short is a flashback showing how his parents landed in jail through one typical day in the life of two atypical parents of the quarter: two mimes. The result is warm hilarity.
"14 Arrondissement (Montparnasse and Parc Montsouris): Alexander Payne in Paris" is tragi-comic, with overtones of "About Schmidt". The main character is a stereotypically overweight but earnest middle-aged (perhaps Middle-West), American woman, in Paris for a week alone. She narrates her week there, in partly comical fashion, sharing her dedicated attempts to advance her knowledge of and ability in the French language with minimal success (she is answered in English by the shopkeepers she addresses). She is a kind of "everyman," and yet as Payne is brilliant at creating, she is momentarily insightful, about herself, Paris, and humanity, offering fleeting, poignant x-rays of the human condition, that will force tiny tears to the corners of a charitable audience’s eyes.
Walter Salles' "Loin du 16me" is a subtle and haunting tale of two cities. Reminiscent of the irony within the discourse about parental responsibility generated by the November 2005 riots in the banlieue (urban periphery), this short features an immigrant nanny who rises early in the suburbs to leave her child in daycare, only to arrive in the posh 16me to care for the infants of the rich. She sacrifices time raising her own baby in order to afford to raise her and supposedly provide her a good home and future. But the suggestion is that it is the rich infant that will prosper most from her loving attention. The political economy of child care and nurture. Powerful.
Barely nudged out of my top three was "Place des Fêtes", a beautiful flashback about a young African immigrant musician stabbed, dying and in love with his paramedic about whom he had just written a love song; and Quai de Seine, a gorgeous intercultural love story.
Several of the shorts followed the same structural narrative: a story that piled up intrigue to a climax, only to undercut the audience's expectations of the narrative, a surprise worthy of a Maupassant short story. Other shorts in "Paris, Je T'Aime", like Nobuhiro Suwa's "Place des Victoires", had potential but end up seeming hackneyed despite decent ideas and odd twists. Or they rely too much on big devices to make small points. Suwa's piece features world cinema bigshots Juliette Binoche and Wilem Dafoe in a story of a mother drowning in grief for her dead son. Dafoe appears as a kind of otherwordly Charon in Western duds (reminiscent of the bizarre cowboy in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive"), who appears to comfort Binoche before he ferries her son across the Styx to the nether world. But here the ferry is a horse, and the Styx is a dark alley leading out of the Place des Victoires.
The Coen brothers provide a clever meditation on the ugly American tourist (Steve Buscemi) who turns out to be just as hapless as he is ugly, with his bright white sneakers and bag full of tourist kitsch, which, as with other characters in their oeuvre, makes him worthy of ambivalent sympathy. For some of the short flims, Paris need not even be the setting, as with the ridiculous vampire that haunts Madeleine. For some of the directors, to say “Paris, je t’aime” is an ironic device, but overall, this charming anthology film makes statements about Paris in reflections on contemporary social life and the human condition.
Jayson Harsin is Assistant Professor, International Communications Department, American University of Paris.