Paris, je t'aime

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A film like Paris, je t’aime was always going to be hit and miss. Consisting of 18 short films, each tries to tell a Parisian love story in about five minutes. It goes without saying that some of the films are charmers and some are absolute dross.

Okay, so let’s get the crap out of the way first. What are the stinkers?

The film that immediately springs to mind is Porte de Choisy by Christopher Doyle. Concerning a beauty product salesman in Chinatown, it doesn’t have one moment where it doesn’t annoy, frustrate or enrage. It’s the work of someone with a million ideas but someone who doesn’t know how to tie them all together. So therefore we have to suffer random nonsense like fists shooting through windows, Asian women prancing about in blonde wigs and minimalist dance routines. It’s an appalling pointless film, and I can’t imagine why it was included in the movie – it adds nothing to the piece.

Next on the shit-list is Tour Eiffel. Twee, cloying and sickeningly cute, it tells the story of a mime who falls in love. But this mime isn’t an ordinary man – he’s a man who was literally born a mime; he can’t remove the make-up. This short encompasses everything that is bad about French comedy – everything is about silly faces and cute visual gags. It’s meant to be loveable and endearing, but it ends up being creepy and vomitsome. Two mimes falling in love? Yeah, we don’t need mimes breeding.

Another monumental failure is Quartier de la Madeleine. Here we have Elijah Wood encountering a vampire in a deserted street. But even though he encounters the vampire while backpacking at midnight, rather than run away, he slits his wrists and offers himself. Cocking Christ Almighty, what an idiot. Ooh, that French vampire with her milk bottle skin is tres sexy. I’d like her to give me toothy blow-jobs for eternity. But at the end the two nibble on each other and fall blissfully in love. Too bad Paris hasn’t got any Hot Topic stores – even though this film sucked balls, a movie with them slaughtering annoying tweens might be quite amusing.

Among the more successful stories is Tuileries, a film by the Coen Brothers. It details the experiences of an American tourist (played by Steve Buscemi) as he consults his tourist guide and as he watches a young couple from the opposite side of a Metro station. It’s a film that uses the medium to its advantage – dialogue is sparse and the action is restricted to one location. It’s not overwhelmingly clever or funny, but it never outstays its welcome. And it also captures a couple of universal truths – the outsider feeling you have as a tourist and the resentment that bristles inside locals when they spot someone who’s not one of them.

Another minor triumph is Bastille, a story about a man who is about to dump his wife when he finds out that she has cancer. The expected punchline in a short film about this subject would be that the woman was lying about her illness and just wanted to make sure that her husband didn’t leave her. But instead you have a sad little film about devotion – the woman dies and you get the feeling that the man will never recover.

An even bigger tearjerker than this is Place des fetes. It’s about a Nigerian man who, as he lays dying in the road, asks a paramedic for a cup of coffee. We then find out that the man had fallen in love with the paramedic at first sight at an earlier point in time. Again, it works because it’s simple and because it doesn’t throw a million different ideas at the screen.

Contrast this with Faubourg Saint-Denis. Directed by Tom Twyker and starring Natalie Portman, we have a blind man recount the story of a doomed love affair. It’s far too ambitious a story for a five minute film and at the end there’s a confusing payoff. As a consequence you’re left scratching your head.

However, there is one film that’s ambitious and which succeeds in producing marvellous results. That film would be the last one – 14e arrondissement. Alexander Payne’s film tells the story of a middle-aged Denver woman who goes abroad for the first time. She tells her story in fluent French but with a hideously bad accent. But like most of Payne’s films, while you begin the film laughing at the character, you end up sympathising with them. This woman, all alone and desperately trying to reach out, tries her hardest to experience something new. And so what if her accent sucks? You end up feeling extraordinarily pleased that she’s come to love this city and that her holiday has proven to be worthwhile. Too many tourists want to go somewhere and then put no effort into their holiday. Therefore this woman’s effort and success is moving and triumphant.

The fact that the film concludes with this short perhaps gives the film a better ending than it deserves. With the exception of the Payne short, what we have here is, by and large, either ordinary or poor. And while it’s always nice to see Paris filmed with such love and care, you never really feel like you’re getting to know the city. I guess I’ll just have to go there myself one of these days.

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