Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Paris Je T'aime

Every once and a while at RFC, we do a little housecleaning. You know, sweep up the floor, dust off the processors (I think that's what powers this deal), and remove the cigarette and coffee stains from the monitor. We (or at least I) also tend to find reviews of movies that we saw, liked, intended to review, and just plain forgot about. Like today's review, Paris Je T'aime (that's "Paris, I Love You" for the isolationist, homophobic, culturally starved French-bashing idiots), which was written last summer when the movie was in theaters. So, without further introduction, here is, ash marks and all, some thoughts on a movie I liked a few months ago:

Paris Je T'aime (2006 in France, 2007 in the Good 'ole United States)
Viewed from: The Balcony, but now available on DVD

Dirs: As you will see, quite a few

Sometimes a contrived and hokey idea works out. In the case of Paris Je T'aime, a collection of short films about the world's most romantic city directed by some of the world's best directors, the result: c'est magnifique! (ok, last corny use of French).

The contrived idea is that each story takes place in a separate arrondissement of Paris, showing that the Paris love story does not necessarily = Amelie or Chocolat. So while we do get at least one story of a young, attractive couple in Monmartre, Paris also shows us the less known aspects of Parisian coupling: A vampiress and her victim, two mimes who meet in prison, a stabbed street musician and the paramedic he loves, a washed out actress and drug dealer; a grieving mother comforted by a cowboy, a...well, you get the point. (I've intentionally limited the mention of actors, directors and writers because things just would get too confusing - for a complete list, click here.)

While it was the A-list directors that interested me in the movie (the Coens, Cuarón, Gus Van Sant), their efforts tended to be more workmanlike and obvious than the lesser known directors. Steve Buscemi is great in the Coens short on the dangers of a wandering eye on the Paris metro, but Cuaron and van Sant end up making little more what would be short clips from their own movies, with Cuaron's especially annoying indulgence of a pointless continuous shot the most boring part of the film.

But there are more revelations here than disappointments, including Oliver Schmitz's brilliant story from the 14th about the unrequited (and unacknowledged) love of an African street musician for a local woman. The woman arrives on the scene coincidentally as a paramedic after the man has been stabbed for his guitar, and his love for her is told through a series of quick flashbacks. By the end, it is clear that the woman knows as well about the dying man's love, though our only clue is the shaking tray of coffee she holds in the last shot as the man dies.

Immigration and immigrants are, not surprisingly, a large part of the movie, though the treatments range from nuanced (a story about a local boy and a Muslim girl meeting by the Seine) to obvious (a beautiful but now tragically type-cast Catalina Sandino Moreno leaving her baby to clean rich people's houses).

However, as anyone who has traveled to France knows, there is a worse experience in France than to be an immigrant: to be a tourist. It would be too simple to generalize all of these films, but the one consistent theme does seem to be alienation, or at the least, a feeling of being out of place, whether as a salesman in Chinatown (a brilliant and odd short by Christopher Doyle) or American Steve Buschemi waiting for the Metro. In short, being a tourist in Paris sucks, yet everyone does it. Why?

The best answer may come from the final short of the movie, Alexander Payne's spot-on story of a red-stater's trip to Paris and her attempts to get beyond the tourist traps and the long lines. Narrated in a butchered French with an accent so Americanized even I could understand it, Margo Martindale travels by herself from Denver in search of adventure and freedom, but finds only condescending Frenchman and crushing loneliness.

While Martindale is clearly a representation of the fat and naive American tourist (she reports seeing the grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon Bolivar), her innocence and openness also remind me of what makes Paris so great; how much possibility the city contains. Martindale may never be cool enough to make it in Saint Germain, but she still has something to offer the city, her sincerity. While Paris may have been built by a jaded working class and an elite jet-set, without the wide-eyed tourists and immigrants, it loses much of its purpose; Paris needs the stupid Americans as much as the stupid Americans need Paris. The quirky love stories and the unforgettable moments from Paris Je T'aime (and Paris itself) are not just the gift of a city to the rest of us, but the product of rural optimism and urban sophistication. Put simply, if everyone were as urbane as Parisians, Paris would lose much of its charm. The outcasts and oddballs depicted in Paris, then, are not simply the fringes of the cultural capital of the world, but it's heart.

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