Through the neighbourhoods of Paris, love is veiled, revealed, imitated, sucked dry, reinvented and awakened. A series of five-minute stories from twenty internationally-renowned filmmakers illustrate the various styles, genres, encounters and lifestyles of Paris's arrondissements. Directed by a pleiad of filmmakers including Wes Craven, the Coen brothers and Gus Van Sant, and stars Natalie Portman, Steve Buscemi and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
The portmanteau film is often a hit-miss proposition. When a group of shorts are banded together to make one feature film, it stands to reason that some will be better than others; that one director’s vision won’t quite marry with another’s, or that the broad range of moods within each segment won’t provide for a satisfying whole.
Working from this assumption, we shouldn’t expect Paris je t’aime to be anything other than a catalogue of lovely images at worst, or a sweet confection at best. However, this cinematic stroll through the arrondissements of the French capital is at once captivating, moving and compulsively entertaining; surely a testament to the allure of the city and of the power of love, as inspirational forces.
A cineaste’s wish list of 20 directors have been drawn from all corners of the globe: the US (Wes Craven, Alexander Payne, Joel & Ethan Coen, Richard La Gravenese, Gus Van Sant, Vincenzo Natali); Brazil (Walter Salles, Daniela Thomas); Mexico (Alfonso Cuaron); Spain (Isabel Coixet); Germany (Tom Tykwer); South Africa (Oliver Schmitz); Japan (Nobuhiro Suwa); Australia (Christopher Doyle); India (Gurinder Chadha) and, of course, France (Gerard Depardieu, Olivier Assayas, Sylvain Chomet, Bruno Podalydes, Frederic Auburtin).
Each filmmaker adopts one of the Parisian municipalities and creates a self-contained interpretation of love, French-style. The concept is the brainchild of producer Emmanuel Benbihy. The city-as-cinematic-inspiration is a concept that Benbihy feels passionately about, having overseen the soon-to-be-released New York I Love You, which features the short films of Fatih Akin, Brett Ratner and Shekhar Kapur, among others; films set in Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and Jerusalem are in pre-production.
What first surprises about Paris je t’aime is how many of the filmmakers bring a dark twist to the manifestation of romance, even in the most romantic city in the world. The best example of this is Nobuhiro Suwa’s mesmerising 'Place des Victoires ', a meditation on a mother’s grief. Starring Juliette Binoche as the shattered woman and Willem Dafoe as the imaginary cowboy-hero her dead boy idolised, Suwa concocts a heart-breaking segment that perfectly defines the purest love of all, that between a mother and child, and the pain its destruction unleashes. Other examples of the film’s sad heart are: Podalydes’ 'Montmatre", in which the director stars as a bitter middle-aged man whose own experience of love has been fleeting; "Loin du 16ème", co-directed by Thomas and Salles, featuring Maria Full of Grace star Catalina Sandina Moreno as a single mother who leaves her own child every day to babysit a wealthy woman’s infant; and Coixet’s 'Bastille", which introduces a philandering husband (Sergio Castellitto) at the moment he intends to leave his wife (Miranda Richardson), only to discover that she is terminally ill. This segment features one of the film’s many great lines, uttered by Castellitto as he realises his affection for his wife: 'In pretending to be a man in love, he became a man in love."
As is to be expected, there is also much loveliness and delight to be had in the film. The Coen Brothers (ably abetted by long-time muse Steve Buscemi as their fish-out-of-water protagonist) revisit the pitch-perfect humour of their early films with 'Tuileries", a subway-set treat that satirises French passion and Gallic gaul in equal measure; and the penultimate segment, Alexander Payne’s achingly beautiful "14ème Arrondissement", which stars Margo Martindale as Carol, a lone American tourist recounting her journey in stuttering French to us, the audience ('I can only tell you that at the same time I felt joy and sadness. That was the moment I fell in love with Paris and the moment that I felt that Paris had fallen in love with me.")
In Tom Tykwer’s segment, "Faubourg Saint-Denis", the film attains its emotional zenith. Tykwer unleashes the cinematic equivalent of one’s life flashing before one’s eyes, in a segment that stars Natalie Portman as Francine, an American actress studying in Paris, and Melchior Beslon as Thomas, a blind man who befriends her. When Thomas takes a call from Francine that may be the relationship’s final moments, the director captures Thomas’ heartbreak using a swirling camera, frantic editing and the shattered young man’s endlessly-looping inner monologue. Tykwer brings the film many disparate definitions of love together in a torrent of feelings that is truly stunning and unavoidably moving.
There are many other riches in the film – the melancholy of old-timers such as Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands, Nick Nolte, Fanny Ardant and Bob Hoskins; Vincenzo Natali’s weird vampire interlude starring Elijah Wood and Olga Kurylenko; segments such as Chadha’s "Quais de Seine" and Schmitz’s "Place des Fêtes", examine the humanity of the Muslim and Nigerian immigrant experience, respectively; and a hilarious nod to France’s love of the mime.
Yet what is most astonishing about Paris je t’aime is the clarity with which 20 separate, highly individualistic visions meld into one fluid, resonant work. It says much about the universal nature of love that 20 letters, written in different languages and inspired by the dark depths and giddying heights of human interaction, should all seem to be of the one voice.