Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Paris, je t'aime

[Update: added short commentary to each segment's synopsis]

Paris is known as the City of Lights…A city of culture…of fine dining and magnificent architecture. Paris is a city for lovers: lovers of art, lovers of history, lovers of food, lovers of…love.” So declares the kitsch Paris tourist guide that Steve Buscemi’s character reads while waiting for a train in the Metropolitan subway at Tuileries, at the start of the Coen brothers' hilarious contribution to Paris je t’aime.

Paris je t’aime is more than a collection of short films. Twenty directors from around the globe offer their individual takes on contemporary relationships, with one segment filmed in each of eighteen of Parisarrondissements (districts). While one could justifiably expect a patchwork product, the result was surprisingly cohesive. It was not dissimilar to an ensemble film with simultaneous stories occurring in different parts of the city.

The producers appear to have gone to great lengths to provide guidelines for the directors and then assemble the each segment in a way that maximises continuity. There was a fairly consistent visual style throughout many of the segments, very much in the naturalistic style often seen in French cinema. Grey/faded blue tones dominated, highlighted throughout with a rich dark yellow - it looks great. In many segments, there were props and wardrobe using the same yellow tone. Despite multiple directors, cinematographers and editors, this continuity owes its success to the use of a single production designer (Bettina von den Steinen), set decorator (Sébastien Monteux-Halleur) and costume designer (Olivier Bériot).

Adding to the continuity was the assembly of the segments in a way that was visually consistent. Segments often started at a time of day that appeared to be around the time that the previous one ended. To maximise the sense of the segments making up one film, transitions were inserted between each segment to smoothly join them. It’s often not clear when one segment has ended and the next has started. And finally, the end brings together many of the characters in an unashamedly sentimental conclusion that was surprisingly moving.

This remarkable tribute to a city was born from an idea by Tristan Carné and developed into a feature film concept by Emmanuel Benbihy (who also filmed the transitions between each segment). Tom Tykwer’s award-winning segment was the first produced (shot in 2002 and completed in 2004) and was used as a proof-of-concept from which the project grew. Fans of Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) will recognise many devices in common with that film, that perhaps haven’t been used in anything Tykwer has made since.

The Coen brothers were next to come on board followed by the others. By depicting the city of Paris from the perspective of many directors not native to France, and by setting them in each of the arrondisements, Paris is depicted in a way not usually shown on film. Not only do we see some of the postcard views like the Eiffel Tower (in Sylvain Chomet’s comedy of mime), but also cemetries and housing estates, working-class and affluent areas.

The segments are each of about five minutes duration, but vary from just over four and a half minutes (for Alfonso Cuarón’s segment which, borrowing from his Children of Men, was filmed in a single take) to nearly seven minutes for the first segment by Bruno Podalydès, in which the director takes the lead role.

In a point of interest, Gena Rowlands appears in the segment she wrote, Wes Craven plays (uncredited) the vampire’s victim in Vincenzo Natali’s segment and Alexander Payne appears as the ghost of Oscar Wilde in Wes Craven’s segment.

There are stories of grief, of love, parental love, conjugal love, unrequited love, failed love. It’s perhaps unfair to single out one, but Christopher Doyle’s absurdist Asian-style comedy was the only segment that didn’t quite fit in for my taste.

As a big fan of French cinema, the segments that appealed most to me were those that had a moving social or emotional message. The highlights were segments by Gurinder Chadha, Walter Salles, Nobuhiro Suwa, Oliver Schmitz and Alexander Payne. I found each of these quietly profound in various ways.

Chadha’s beautifully nuanced segment deals with young love and infatuation, society’s prejudices and stereotyping of Islam.

Salles’ segment uses the wonderful Catalina Sandino Moreno. She has the same wonderful presence she displayed in Maria Full of Grace and Fast Food Nation, displaying irony and melancholy in a role virtually without dialogue.

Suwa has Juliette Binoche portraying a mother grieving the loss of her young son, reminiscent of her role in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue. This was my favourite segment.

Just as powerful was Schmitz’s segment about a paramedic who attends to a scene to find someone she met earlier in the day. When the senior paramedic arrives to see her with tears in her eyes, he assumes she’s new to the job.

Payne’s segment initially seems incongruous, with a frumpy looking Margo Martindale playing the quintessential American tourist speaking clumsy French as voiceover. As her narrative develops, her words combine with the visuals (including an aerial 360° view of the city, perhaps atop the Eiffel Tower) to produce a moving finale and fitting tribute to Paris.

I found virtually all the segments noteworthy, but those mentioned above are the most outstanding. Short films often work like teasers, and it would be interesting to see if any of the segments are further developed into feature length films by their respective directors.

Paris je t’aime is an innovative project and took big risks that have worked artistically. Hopefully it will pay off at the box office. The film screened in competition at Cannes and according to IMDB, similar projects have been planned for New York and China.

First with the recent French Film Festival, and now with Paris je t’aime, I feel inspired to enrol in French classes that I’ve been contemplating for a long time.

The following details for each arrondissement, the director, country, a previous work, writer, cast, synopsis and comments.


Written & directed: Bruno Podalydès (France); Cast: Florence Muller, Bruno Podalydès

As a frustrated man wonders why he can’t find love, a passing woman faints by his parked car. An interesting (very) black comedy or wry drama.

Quais de Seine

Directed: Gurinder Chadha (England, Bend it Like Beckham); Written: Gurinder Chadha & Paul Mayeda Berges; Cast: Leïla Bekhti, Cyril Descours

François goes to the aid of a Muslim girl when she trips over and wonders whether this is the girl of his dreams. Nuanced social commentary with humanistic perspective.

Le Marais

Written & directed: Gus Van Sant (USA, Elephant); Cast: Marianne Faithfull, Elias McConnell, Gaspard Ulliel

An unconventional story of miscommunication and young love. Looks French, looks Van Sant. A strange story. Not among my favourites but added to the overall film.


Written & directed: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen (USA, Fargo); Cast: Julie Bataille, Steve Buscemi, Axel Kiener

Classic Coen brothers bent humour as an American tourist learns Parisian etiquette the hard way. Very enjoyable and clever. Without subtitles, we shared the tourist's confusion, relying on body language to understand the dialogue.

Loin du 16ème

Written & directed: Walter Salles (Brazil, The Motorcycle Diaries) & Daniela Thomas; Cast: Catalina Sandino Moreno

A young woman relinquishes her baby to day care in order to take a bus and train across town to care for another woman’s child. Life really can be a struggle and this is portrayed poignantly and virtually without dialogue.

Porte de Choisy

Directed: Christopher Doyle (Australia, cinematographer for 2046); Written: Christopher Doyle, Kathy Li & Gabrielle King; Cast: Barbet Schroeder, Li Xin

An absurdist story about a travelling salesman, a hairdresser and a Buddhist monk. Consistent with the sensibility of Asian cinema with which Doyle has been long-associated with. OK, but my least favourite.


Written & directed: Isabel Coixet (Spain, My Life Without Me); Cast: Javier Cámara, Sergio Castellitto, Miranda Richardson, Leonor Watling

A man abandons his plan to leave his wife when he learns she is dying of leukaemia. Slightly comedic, perhaps a dark parody of a romantic drama. The astute may recognise the doctor from Almodovóvar's Hable con ella (Talk to Her).

Place des Victoires

Written & directed: Nobuhiro Suwa (Japan, Un couple parfait); Cast: Juliette Binoche, Martin Combes, Willem Dafoe, Hippolyte Girardot

A woman seems unable to resolve her grief over the loss of her son. Beautifully framed and photographed with a sublime story. My favourite segment, and a nice contrast to Un couple parfait (screened at MIFF 2006, which I didn't like).

Tour Eiffel

Written & directed: Sylvain Chomet (France, The Triplets of Belleville); Cast: Yolande Moreau, Paul Putner

A sweet story with visual references akin to David Lynch in which a boy explains how his mime parents met. Not overly original, but and interesting take on a known genre using the Eiffel Tower as a gorgeous backdrop.

Parc Monceau

Written & directed: Alfonso Cuarón (Mexico, Y tu mama tambien); Cast: Sara Martins, Nick Nolte, Ludivine Sagnier

A heated conversation between an older man and younger woman conceals the nature of their relationship. Cuarón uses some of the skills he picked up on Children of Men to good effect. Nice characterisations.

Quartier des Enfants Rouges

Written & directed: Olivier Assayas (France, Irma Vep); Cast: Lionel Dray, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Joana Preiss

An actress is disappointed when her drug dealer sends a substitute to deliver a deal. Nicely nuanced and naturalistic.

Place des Fêtes

Written & directed: Oliver Schmitz (Germany, Turkish for Beginners); Cast: Seydou Boro, Aïssa Maïga

A young man and young woman cross paths for the second time in one day, under tragic circumstances. I found it profoundly moving - one of several segments that could be extended to make a great feature film.


Written & directed: Richard LaGravenese (USA, Freedom Writers); Cast: Fanny Ardant, Bob Hoskins

A game of cat-and-mouse between an older couple whose relationship may be at the end of the road. Sharp and witty dialogue, ascerbic comedy.

Quartier de la Madeleine

Written & directed: Vincenzo Natali (Canada, Cube); Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Elijah Wood

A gothic story of love-at-first-bite between a young man and a beautiful vampiress. A horror film with a touch of humour that somehow slips easily into the anthology and adds to the rich overall texture of the film.


Written & directed: Wes Craven (USA, Scream); Cast: Emily Mortimer, Alexander Payne, Rufus Sewell

A change of pace for Craven in a contemporary story of love and conflict as a young couple seek the grave of Oscar Wilde. Subdued and enjoyable observational drama with a slight witty bent.

Faubourg Saint-Denis

Written & directed: Tom Tykwer (Germany, Run Lola Run); Cast: Melchior Beslon, Natalie Portman

A tale of lament as a young blind man recalls how his initially joyful relationship has deteriorated. Seems a little derivative from Run Lola Run, using several devices in common with that film, but moving and enjoyable nonetheless. Nice characterisations (I have a soft spot for Natalie Portman who always looks naturally gorgeous).

Quartier Latin

Directed: Gérard Depardieu & Frédéric Auburtin (France); Written: Gena Rowlands; Cast: Gérard Depardieu, Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands

Sharply written and well-delivered lines as an older couple meet to discuss divorce. A great two-hander from these classy Hollywood veterans.

14th arrondissement

Written & directed: Alexander Payne (USA, Sideways); Cast: Margo Martindale

A lone American tourist finds peace within herself and connectedness to a foreign city in which she struggles with the language. Beautifully brings the film towards a close in a very natural and moving way.

Useful links

Plot summary by Emmanuel Benbihy
Arrondissements of Paris

Paris je t’aime at Cannes

Office website / IMDB


Marina said...

I had planned to see this at VIFF but never managed to fit it into the schedule. I'm interested to see it, especially now, and mostly because of Vincenzo Natali's contribution.

Paul Martin said...

I think Vincenzo Natali and Wes Craven were having a bit of a joke. Craven appears as the vampire's victim in a film by Natali (who doesn't usually do horror, and Craven does).

Craven does a straight story, but sets it in a cemetery.

BTW, I really liked Natali's Cube. He did really well on a small budget using limited resources to great effect. I really liked his segment in PJT, but there's several I liked considerably more.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul we saw "Paris J'taime" at the St George Open Air cinema scoring some free tickets from the Age (as subscribers). Without searching your archives I wonder if you went to this theatre during it's short Melb inaugural season?

Even in Feb in Melb, we found the night quite cold. We had dinner from the caterers between the cinema and the Yarra, glass of wine, etc. If you paid to go in and ate very little change out of $100 for a couple. Melb looked quite nice as a background to the screen. But honestly I still think cinemas like cars 90% of the time should have roofs. The week before I went to the open air cinema in the Botannical Gardens (Moonlight - also a freebie to see the Canadian movie Crazy (witht the Patsy Cline soundtrack) from the 2006 MFF. I think the Moonlight pricing and the rental bean bags make this potentially a better venue. I was solo this particular night but with a bottle of wine (BYO?), a picnic and a blanket this might be more fun at a lot less cost than Birramung.

But you had to hand it to the St George Open Air people..they had a lot of premieres and sneak previews months in some cases before the same movies debuted locally.


Paul Martin said...

John, I was aware of the screening, but I ignored it because I don't like the idea of open-air 'cinema'. I don't really consider it cinema. More like a drive-in; perhaps it should be called a walk-in. But not cinema.

LenKa said...

Great review (by segments) & illustrations - thanks!

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comments, Lenka. I note from your profile that we have a common interest in Kieslowski and Binoche. Have you seen Paris je t'aime?

LenKa said...

Yes, I've seen :) It's stunning - that's why I started to search for more info about the film. My cinema blog is in Russian, as you noticed. But from the pics you may judge which segments I loved most:)
Once again - great post about the film!!

Paul Martin said...

Ah yes, a picture says a thousand words. I liked all of those, especially the Binoche scene.

Phillip Kelly said...


Nice piece. More intricately designed than mine.

The one thing that I loved which I didn't comment on in my blog was that while Paris felt distinct they also took the time (probably because of such a culturally diverse group of directors) to show that Paris is very similar to every city on the planet. That people of all types inhabit this authentically wonderful city. The same type of people that I see here in LA on a daily basis, dealing with the same things. That's what grounded it for me, made it far more universal and emotionally potent.

It made me consider taking up French lessons again.

Paul Martin said...

That's a nice observation that I didn't pick up on, Phil, at least not consciously. Yet perhaps, that's what I intuitively liked about it. The segments that I found moving or profound did relate to universal issues like loss, pain and lament.