New York may be a perennial movie character and Los Angeles a backdrop, but for elegiac representations of itself, Paris beats them both. While no other city can boast such a long-term, intimate connection with the movies, like so many cinematic icons, this one is often reduced to its moldiest clichés. Seeking to redress this problem and present the city as the dynamic, varied metropolis that it is (and not the Eiffel Tower-themed repository for gamines and baguettes it's often shown to be), producers Emmanuel Benbihy and Claudie Ossard assembled a collection of 18 shorts by 21 directors from all over the world, each set in a different Parisian neighborhood. I'd toss in a funny French interjection here if I didn't suspect it would be counterproductive.
Benbihy was approached with the idea by a young French TV director named Tristan Carné. Benbihy, who produced "Run Lola Run," began with a short film by Tom Tykwer (who directed "Lola") set in Faubourg Saint-Denis. It stars Natalie Portman as a young American acting student who calls her French boyfriend, Thomas (Melchior Belson), one afternoon to tell him she's breaking up with him. This causes Thomas to relive the relationship, as one does, in compressed fast-motion. Squashed into a few minutes, a typical youthful romance becomes a totem of love in all its highs, lows and mundane repetitions. The Coen brothers signed on to the project after Tykwer, and the producers were then able to attract directors as diverse as Alexander Payne, Alfonso Cuarón, Isabel Coixet, Gus Van Sant and Walter Salles. Actors such as Gena Rowlands, Nick Nolte and Fanny Ardant, to name just a few, followed.
For a form that was not so long ago moribund, if not totally stiff, short films have at long last met their moment. Regardless, organizing a group of them into a feature-length film around a loose concept works particularly well here.
That the city manages to emerge as mysterious as ever comes as no real surprise to fans of the form — the best short films chuck narrative conventions and formula out the window to burrow in odd, tiny places and root out unexpected characters and swift, stealthy, merciless stories.
Less a travelogue than a kaleidoscopic view of the many moods the city inspires — and they are sundry — "Paris Je T'Aime" also works as a handy guide to the many things a short film can be. In the Coens' funny, absurdist, nearly wordless "Tuileries," Steve Buscemi plays an American tourist quietly minding his own business on the Metro when he fails to heed one of the warnings in his increasingly surreal Paris guidebook and pandemonium ensues. In Christopher Doyle's gorgeous, lunatic "Porte de Choisy," a hair-care product salesman pays a visit to a Chinese hair salon, and the result is part Hong Kong action, part Maurice Chevalier. In Walter Salles' straightforward and poignant "Far From the 16th," Catalina Sandino Moreno plays the young mother of an infant who leaves him behind and travels a long way every day to work as a nanny in the city's toniest neighborhood.
To watch these films is to conclude that the less that is said in a short film the better — that is until you come across Isabel Coixet's "Bastille," or Alexander Payne's "14ème Arrondissement" and change your mind again. In "Bastille," a man on the verge of leaving his wife for his mistress learns that the wife is terminally ill and decides to stay with her. The main character's wall-to-wall stream-of-consciousness takes us through the whole story in voice-over, except where the strangers in a restaurant interrupt as the voice of his conscience. Why not?
The notion that a short is most affecting as a glimpse into the soul of a quirky character is confirmed in Payne's beautiful "14ème Arrondissement." A middle-aged American mail carrier from Denver, who diligently studied French as she prepared for the trip of a lifetime to Paris, walks around the city sharing her impressions and looking for a decent place to eat. Reflecting on her life in fluent but abysmally accented French, she experiences an unexpected epiphany while sitting on a park bench.
Payne's film alone would be worth the price of admission. Some installments are less inspiring, and one or two could qualify as missteps. But "Paris Je T'Aime" has something going for it that not every movie can claim: It always has Paris.
"Paris, Je T'Aime." MPAA rating: R for language and brief drug use. Running time: 2 hours. In selected theaters.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times