Saturday, February 1, 2014

Paris je T'aime

Here is the concept: 16 short films about Parisian neighborhoods, each by a different director. Each section in the anthology is five minutes long and set in a different arrondissement in the city. -- there are apparently 16 of them. The results are mixed: some of the films are embarrassingly bad, others perfunctory, and a couple very good. As a neighborhood by neighborhood survey of Paris, the film seems unsatisfactory -- at least to me, all of Paris looks pretty much the same: glamorous, charming, unified by vistas of the Eifel Tower; local distinctions that someone deemed important in designing this film -- a sort of Oulipo approach to cinema, it seems -- are blurry to this viewer in the American Midwest. Alexander Payne’s sketch of a female letter carrier from Denver doggedly touring Paris in her sweat suit and fanny-pouch is funny and sad and generous at the same time -- far and away the most memorable episode in this omnibus film. Payne’s heroine is played by the redoubtable Margot Martindale, the best thing in “August: Osage County” and the best thing in this movie as well. Martindale narrates her travelogue in stammered High School French that is, at once, earnest, courageous, and peculiarly melancholy. (She misreads Sartre’s grave and thinks that the Frenchman is buried with Simon Bolivar.) When she speaks French to the Parisians, they immediately and contemptuously answer her in English. She is lonely and a bit clueless and the experience of her lifetime turns out to be not as wonderful as she had hoped, and, yet, the City works its magic on her -- Payne has a light touch and he is never condescending and his little segment is a gem. The worst and most embarrassing (and morbidly unpleasant) episode involves Gena Rowland and Ben Gazzara meeting in a bistro managed by an unctuous Gerard Depardieu. Gazzara’s role is horribly misconceived -- he plays an aging Lothario, a character of the sort that Woody Allen used to impersonate before his dotage -- but the poor man seems to be half-dead from some kind of emaciating cancer. He can barely move his mouth and one has the terrible sense that his lower face is a prosthesis. Gena Rowland is florid and loud, but she can’t convincingly act in the company of the cadaver-like Gazzara and the episode is a calamitous failure. Tom Tykwer’s whirlwind account of a love-affair between a blind youth and a beautiful young actress is stylish and gripping; the director crams novelistic detail into his frenetic five minutes and his episode is moderately exciting. Two politically correct sequences, one about a Muslim girl and hooligan, the other about a Latin-American nanny, manage to be both annoying and dull -- they seem longer than their allotted five minutes. Wes Craven’s segment involving a couple quarreling at the lipstick-smeared grave of Oscar Wilde has some of the best dialogue in the film, but it turns out to be merely whimisical. The Coen brothers contribution, a film set in a subway station under the Tuileries, stars Steve Buscemi and is joky and flippant, but well-directed. Oliver Assayas offers an episode involving an American movie star, played by Maggie Gyllenhal, interacting with her drug-dealer -- it’s just okay. Alphonso Cuaron directs Nick Nolte in a single extended take, a long tracking shot that seems a precursor to the bravura tracking shots in “Children of Men” and “Gravity” -- technically accomplished, the episode is shallow, a one-trick pony. Gus Van Sant’s episode is a gay pick-up scene complicated by the fact that the target of the seduction, an American kid, doesn’t know French. (Marianne Faithful is briefly visible in the background.) A scary-looking Barbet Schroeder stars as a hair products salesman in an episode by Christopher Doyle that is stylish but really just a music video -- it’s set in Chinatown and involves lots of graceful and exotic-looking Oriental models. Willem Defoe and Juliette Binoche appear in a maudlin segment about a grieving mother. Equally sentimental is an episode about a woman dying of leukemia. Someone named Oliver Schmitz directs a segment involving an African immigrant who is bleeding to death after a street fight -- Schmitz has a real narrative flair and his episode is one of the best: the story is surprisingly complex and nuanced for five minutes and wonderfully designed. Elijah Wood bats his huge eyes at the camera in a ridiculously stylized vampire sequence full of lurid neon-red blood -- it’s pretty to look at but vacuous. Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardent play an old married couple trying to revive their passion by sex games in Place Pigalle, but there’s not much there. The opening sequence set in Montmartre is pretty but so slight that you can’t recall the episode at all by the end of the film. Five minutes is a bad length for a short film -- ”Lumiere and Company”, another portmanteau film, required that the directors compress their contributions into a single ninety second take (they were shooting with Lumieres original camera); this task was so daunting that the film makers had to be both innovative and adventurous at the same time. By contrast, five minutes is an intermediate length -- in these films, it always seems either too short or too long and, with the exception of Payne, Tykwer, and Schmitz’ episodes, the rest of the films either drag or feel too short for their subject matter.

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