In “Lost in Paris,” a charmingly featherweight comedy about three accident-prone eccentrics running around the City of Light, it’s only a matter of time before someone falls into the Seine.
That someone turns out to be a Canadian tourist named Fiona (Fiona Gordon), who is walking across a bridge over the river when she makes the mistake of asking a runner to take her photo. She smiles for the camera and, echoing the runner’s movements, gently jogs in place. Gravity and bad luck do the rest.
The gag is beautifully staged, but what stays with you isn’t just the precision of the acrobatics (or the hilarity of the photo when we finally get a good look at it). It’s the sympathetic expression on the face of the runner, who is left holding Fiona’s phone and dashes after her even as she’s swept downriver. Cruel comic mishaps may be this movie’s raison d’être, but they are softened at every turn by the gentle humanity of the city’s inhabitants, and by the unspoken sense that everything will turn out fine in the end.
Everything does turn out fine, and so does “Lost in Paris,” the fourth feature showcase for the Brussels-based husband-and-wife burlesque performers Gordon and Dominique Abel. (The previous films they made and starred in, “L’iceberg,” “Rumba” and “The Fairy,” were co-directed with Bruno Romy.) Honed through years of circus experience and steeped in the grand French physical-comedy tradition of Jacques Tati and Pierre Étaix, their deft and inventive antics invariably leave a smile on your face even when their inspiration begins to wear a little thin.
Their latest is a brightly hued, cleverly orchestrated bit of nonsense that, at 83 minutes, neither overstays nor understays its welcome. The movie begins in a snowy Canadian hamlet where Fiona, a middle-age librarian, receives a letter from her aunt Martha (Emmanuelle Riva), who left town decades ago to move to Paris. Now 88, Martha asks Fiona to come visit her and keep her from being packed off to a retirement home — a sad prospect that, given the unusually circuitous route the letter takes to arrive on Fiona’s desk, doesn’t seem too surprising.
Fiona seems to have inherited some of her aunt’s dottiness, and Gordon makes her a gawky delight to watch. She lands in Paris in a bright green outfit that contrasts sharply with her ginger hair, her oversized red backpack and the maple-leaf flag sticking out of the top, looking for all the world like a sentient Christmas tree. Within hours of her arrival, she’s taken that tumble into the Seine and lost her bag and her passport, which fatefully wind up in the hands of Dom (Abel), a homeless drifter whose elfin features promise a healthy dose of mischief.
It’s no surprise to note that, in line with the various alternate cinematic universes in which they’ve popped up, Dom and Fiona will turn out to be improbable soul mates. That much is clear from the moment we see Dom whisk Fiona out of her seat and twirl her around a dance floor in a sequence that, as gracefully composed by cinematographers Claire Childeric and Jean-Christophe Leforestier, lets us take in the actors’ spectacularly Gumby-limbed bodies in long, unbroken takes. (That Dom happens to be wearing Fiona’s yellow sweater makes the scene even funnier.)
Although rife with pratfalls, near-misses, crazy coincidences and mistaken identities, “Lost in Paris” is a whirligig contraption that never turns frenetic or throws too much at you. It’s like a Jean-Pierre Jeunet farce on Xanax, with a soothing dose of Wes Anderson whimsy for good measure. It’s also a fond if inadvertent farewell to Riva, who died earlier this year (several months after the film premiered at festivals), and whose storied performances in “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” “Léon Morin, Priest” and “Amour” gave moviegoers little indication of her screwball potential.
At one point, the picture stops gently in its tracks so that Martha can reunite with an old friend (Pierre Richard, another French cinema legend), and the camera zooms in on their feet as they go through a delicate soft-shoe routine. It’s the loveliest of throwaways, but also an emblematic moment in a movie that moves to its own loopy, life-affirming beat.
‘Lost in Paris’
In French and English with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena, and Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles