Call it an anthology, an omnibus or a portmanteau film, the multi-director Paris, Je T’Aime is the bee’s knees, the cat’s pajamas and the lobster’s dinner shirt of movies currently playing. And no one can be more surprised than I. Oh sure, I thought it would be intriguing to see what 18 directors would come up with by way of approximately five-minute movies on various neighborhoods of Paris, but I also expected a finished product that would be uneven and disjointed—something in the “more interesting than good” category. (Anyone who’s seen the 1995 40-director opus originally titled Lumière et Cie will know what I mean.) In other words, a stunt movie—kind of the cinematic equivalent of watching a bear in a tutu ride a unicycle. Astonishingly, Paris, Je T’Aime is no stunt. Instead, it’s a marvel of filmmaking. In part because its 120-minute length feels strangely of a piece rather than a series of unconnected shorts.
The closest thing I can compare the film to is Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty (1974), but the comparison creates a false impression since it implies a surrealist or absurdist work, and Paris, Je T’Aime is neither. But the film does share the same unified feeling that Buñuel achieved in The Phantom of Liberty, where he interwove the different stories by having his camera just pick up a new character and wander away from the last narrative into a new one. Paris, Je T’Aime doesn’t follow this approach (though it does finally interconnect some of its narratives), but rather joins the stories together with glimpses of Paris as the connecting device. The feeling is of a voyeuristic tour of the city that allows us to drop in on individual dramas, comedies and even tragedies—with each being something of a romance in its own way. Exactly what kind of overall romance it is at the bottom of it all is not made clear until the last segment, Alexander Payne’s completely remarkable 14th Arrondissement, the story of a solo American tourist (Margo Martindale, The Hours) on a long-desired trip to Paris.
The trick to all this is that the various filmmakers—most of whom have no discernible stylistic connection with each other—seem strangely in tune with the overall concept, resulting in a film that overcomes its inherent patchwork nature. Kudos should go to producer Emmanuel Benbihy, who came up with the feature-film concept and is responsible for the transitional scenes. (He’s currently developing similar films on New York and China.) Though rarely addressed in reviews, he’s undoubtedly a major force in the film’s success. The temptation, of course, is to look at the individual shorts separately. In fact, that’s inescapable, but in doing so, it’s essential to remember that it’s the cumulative impact that counts.
There really aren’t any clunkers, though there are standouts: Payne’s episode, the Coen brothers’ Tuileries, Sylvain Chomet’s Tour Eiffel, Gus Van Sant’s Le Marais, Christopher Doyle’s Porte de Choisy, Nobuhiro Suwa’s Place des Victoires and there are others very nearly as good. Some are a bit surprising. Though he appears briefly in Vincenzo Natali’s almost hallucinatory vampire story, Quartier de la Madeleine, horror-meister Wes Craven contributes a slice of light romantic comedy with Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell as bickering lovers who get a little help from Oscar Wilde’s ghost (Alexander Payne) in Père-Lachaise. Sylvain Chomet of Triplets of Belleville (2003) fame manages the unthinkable: He makes mimes appealing.
Cinematographer Christopher Doyle turns director and casts director Barbet Schroeder as a cosmetics salesman in the deliciously playful and creative Porte de Choisy. Gus Van Sant offers a tale of sweetly ironic gay love nearly defeated by an accidental language barrier. Alfonso Cuarón’s entry, Parc Monceau, is little more than a slight sketch with a mild punch line, but is interesting technically for its long-take approach. Isabel Coixet’s Bastille is a splendid mix of over-the-top comedic filmmaking tied to a sad love story. And Nobuhiro Suwa’s Place des Victoires is quite simply stunning.
All 18 segments, though, are more than worth a look—and taken together they produce a film that touches upon so much that is true and touching and funny in the human condition in ways that few movies have. It truly is a major accomplishment. It’s also a film that ought to be required viewing for anyone out there wanting to actually make movies—as an inspirational look at how much can be accomplished with how little in a very brief time. Rated R for language and brief drug use.