May 19, 2007

MOVIES: Paris, Je T'aime (various directors, 2006/US 2007)

A 2-hour collection of 18 short vignettes about love, each set in (and named for) one of Paris's administrative districts, and each with a different cast and director. The results are uneven, but there are few outright clunkers and several lovely gems in the mix; the movie as a while is delightful.

Let's get the clunkers out of the way first, and note that they are only relative clunkers; even the worst segments of the movie are watchable. Vicenzo Natali's "Quartier de la Madeleine" finds Elijah Wood pursuing a vampire (Olga Kurylenko) through gloomy streets; it's striking to look at -- everyone's dressed and made up in various shades of gray, and the only noticable color is the extraordinary bright red of blood -- but Wood and Kurylenko aren't good enough actors to tell the story without dialogue, as they're called upon to do. Sylvain Chomet's "Tour Eiffel" resorts to the scariest of Parisian cliches -- the mime -- and drowns in its own whimsy. And Christopher Doyle's "Porte de Choisy" finds Barbet Schroeder, of all people, selling hair-care products to salons in Chinatown; the segment allows Doyle to indulge his fondness for photographing Asian women in striking settings, but beyond that, it's a muddled mess.

On the plus side, Joel & Ethan Coen's "Tuileries" finds Steve Buscemi waiting for a train at a Metro station when he's caught up in a local couple's romantic drama; his panicked deadpan is a marvel. Gerard Depardieu and Frederic Auburtin give us an all-too-short glimpse into a marriage at its end in "Quartier Latin;" I would gladly have watched Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara sparring for another hour. Wes Craven turns in a surprisingly sweet and witty ghost story of sorts in "Pere-Lachaise," with Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell finding a little romantic magic in a cemetery.

("Pere-Lachaise" isn't the only ghost story in the movie, and there are other odd recurring themes and images -- the intense red of blood, famous graves, parents and children, misunderstood messages.)

Best of all is the final segment, Alexander Payne's "14th Arrondissement," in which a postal worker from Denver (the always delightful Margo Martindale) narrates the story of her Parisian vacation in heavily accented French; the love story here is between Martindale and Paris itself, and it strikes just the right note of wistful nostalgia.

The roster of directors also includes Gus Van Sant, Gurinder Chadha, Walter Salles, Alfonso Cuaron, and Tom Tykwer; among the cast are Catalina Sandino Moreno, Marianne Faithfull, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Nick Nolte, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, and Natalie Portman.

Paris, Je T'aime is a charming collection of vignettes, and it left me wondering whether Paris should be the destination of my next big vacation.

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