FEATURING: Steve Buscemi, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Nick Nolte, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Seydou Boro, Aïssa Maïga, Bob Hoskins, Elijah Wood, Olga Kurlyenko, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazarra, Gérard Depardieu, Li Xin, and many, many more
PLOT: Eighteen short films (averaging about six minutes each), each set in a different Paris neighborhood and each focusing loosely on the theme of amour.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Of the eighteen shorts, only Christopher Doyle’s offering is actually weird (although a few others have some mildly weird elements).
COMMENTS: Like any anthology film, Paris, Je T’aime is a box of chocolates, with some bittersweet bon-bons, a few of the dreaded coconuts, and one oddly shaped piece with a taste you can’t quite place. Putting the most curious confection aside for last, there are a few novel flavors in this box of sweets. The Coen brothers serve up an absurdly paranoid—and laugh-out-loud funny—sketch. A bemused and horrified Steve Buscemi stars as an American tourist who unwisely forgets his guidebook’s advice not to look Parisians in the eye in the subway, with strange, unfortunate, and hilarious results. Impossible teleportations and lusty Gallic vindictiveness remove this one from the realm of reality. Climbing a rung down the weirdness ladder brings us to Vincent (Cube) Natali’s offering, a stylized, silent eroto-vampire number starring Elijah Wood and luminous Bond girl Olga Kurlyenko; shot in faux black-and-white with hyperreal pools of red blood, it’s a mood piece tapping elegant cinematic myths. Further down, Juliette Binoche is a grieving mother who dreams of cowboys in “Place des Victories”; and Sylvian (The Triplets of Bellville) Chomet brings us a slapstick story of love among mimes that won’t change your view of those despicable creatures, but offers respite from the reality of the surrounding tales.
The most memorable segment of all, it should be mentioned, isn’t one bit weird: Oliver Schmitz’ “Places des Fêtes” is the account of an injured Nigerian immigrant who wants to share a cup of coffee with the cute paramedic who comes to his aid. His story is told in flashback, and the piece ends on a quiet but shattering image. Compressing a lifetime’s heartbreak into five minutes of film is an amazing achievement.
The one fully weird sequence comes courtesy of respected cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who previously collaborated with Wong Kar-Wai and lensed Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, and who steps out here for only the second time as a director. Frequently cited by fans as their least favorite segment, it’s neither the best nor the worst; mainstream viewers were just unpleasantly startled to see an experimental film thrown into the conventional love-letter field. Doyle’s visual flair is in evidence in this culture-clash scenario involving a French salesman peddling a line of products designed to address “Asian hair problems” at a Chinatown salon. The Chinese clientele eventually fall in love with the idea of going blonde and looking like movie stars, but when the distributor gets to know the lanky, sexy Madame Li, he decides he likes her better in her natural state. In the course of his renunciation of Euro-hair imperialism he deals with kung fu hostesses, Buddhist priests, and musical numbers. It’s light surrealism, and the affection for poppy Asiatic weirdness is a welcome change of pace from the earnest Francophilia.
Curiously, the first three segments all rank among the least effective: two inconclusive and nearly pointless dramatic snippets flanking a preachy parable of tolerance. The first twenty minutes of the film may make you want to change the channel, but persevere; the Coen’s change of pace is coming up next, and things move more quickly from that point on. There’s enough powerful and interesting stuff amidst a bit of dramtaic dreck here to make this compilation worthy of a mild recommendation, and the pieces by the Coens, Natali and Doyle make it of tangential weird interest.
Part of the fun of compilations like this is arguing about which segments were best and worst afterward (“dude, seriously, ‘Loin du 16’eme’ bites and ’14th Arrondisement’ rules!”) Here’s my ranking of the segments in order from best to worst:
- “Place des Fêtes” by Oliver Schmitz; wounded Nigerian tries to get coffee date with paramedic.
- “Tulieres” by the Coen Brothers; Steve Buscemi makes unwise eye contact.
- “Quartier de la Madeleine” by Vincent Natali; stylized vampire love.
- “Bastille” by Isabel Coxiet; a man plans to divorce wife over dinner.
- “Place des Victories” by Nobuhiro Suwa; Juliette Binoche dreams of cowboys.
- “Loin du 16’eme” by Walter Sales and Daniela Thomas; two very different lullabies.
- “Porte de Choisy” by Christopher Doyle; up with Asian hair.
- “14th Arrondisement” by Alexander Payne; dowdy American letter carrier spends holiday in Paris alone.
- “Tour Eiffel” by Sylvian Chomet; mime after mime.
- “Faubourg Saint-Denis” by Tom Tyker; blind guy scores with Natalie Portman.
- “Parc Monceau” by Alfonso Cuaron; Nick Nolte and a younger woman.
- “Pere Lachaise” by Wes Craven; Wes wants to prove he can do romantic comedy. He can’t.
- “Quartier des Enfants Rouges” by Olivier Assayas; American actress falls in love with drug dealer, maybe.
- “Quartier Latin” by Frederic Auburtin and Gerard Depardieu; divorcing old couple trade urbane barbs over dinner.
- “Montmarte” by Bruno Podalydes; a loser looking for love and parking lucks out when a pretty woman passes out on the sidewalk.
- “Le marais” by Gus Van Sant; young man tries to pick up an uncommunicative lad.
- “Quais de Seine” by Gurinder Chadha; a pretty face teaches a college kid tolerance for other genders and cultures.
- “Pigalle” by Richard LaGravenese; old couple spice up their lovelife in the red light district.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…has a strange and lingering impact. Most of the shorts have the feeling of fragments, of half stories, or of beginnings without ends, or ends without beginnings.”–Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)