Yesterday, I saw Paris, Je T’aime, in which twenty filmmakers use Paris as a backdrop for short stories about various kinds of love and relationships. Here’s the trailer:

The movie is organized around eighteen five-minute arrondissements. Each episode is written and directed by a different person. It stars many well-known actors, including Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, Nick Nolte, Gena Rowlands, Steve Buscemi, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and includes several famous directors, including Gus Van Sant, Joel and Ethan Coen, Alfonso Cuarón, Wes Craven, and Alexander Payne.

Some of the episodes are less successful than others, but on the whole I really liked this movie. I was a little worried going into it that I wouldn’t like the short format of the individual episodes. But I found the short form interesting, since it allows you to compare the different directors’ styles as well as the different stories’ plots and statements about love. There’s a little bit of everything here: whimsy, sentiment, violence, heartbreak, exuberance, humor, despair. It was also great to see many of the places that we had just visited included in the film. As an experiment in film making, it definitely succeeds.

Four of the arrondissements stood out as my favorites; I’ll briefly explain why I liked them in particular in the order they appear in the movie. Loin du 16e (XVIe arrondissement) was written and directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas and stars Catalina Sandino Moreno as woman who must leave her infant in (what appears to be) subpar daycare in order to commute across the city to her job as nanny for a wealthy family’s infant. It’s heartbreaking in its subtle simplicity as we see the sacrifice she makes to support herself and her baby. We also see the contrast between how she loves her own child and merely cares for her employer’s infant. It’s a great episode.

I also especially liked Faubourg Saint-Denis (Xe arrondissement), written and directed by Tom Tykwer and starring Melchior Beslon and Natalie Portman as a blind man and the would-be actress he accidentally meets and falls in love with. This episode has perhaps the showiest direction of all the arrondissements, but the directing really works for this particular story. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but it also seemed to me that Portman’s character references her character from Closer, a film I liked. This potential reference led me to expect certain plot developments that I think the director might have wanted us to anticipate.

Another favorite was Quartier Latin (VIe arrondissement), written by Gena Rowlands and directed by Gérard Depardieu and Frédéric Auburtin. In this episode Ben Gazzara and Rowlands play a divorcing couple who meet for a drink on the eve of signing the final papers. Their conversation soon turns to recriminations and not-so-subtle digs at each other’s new love interests. For me, the final shot in the episode recast the entire thing, potentially contradicting what one of the characters had been saying. I found this reading really touching.

Finally, I also enjoyed the last episode, 14e arrondissement (XIVe arrondissement), written and directed by Alexander Payne and starring Margo Martindale as an American tourist visiting Paris on her own. What starts as a humorous account of her American-inflected French (which I thought was a little rude, especially since I definitely felt like an American rube in Paris) soon morphs into a very sweet and satisfying end to the movie. Martindale does a wonderful job grounding this woman in reality and effecting the episode’s tonal turn.

Cyril DescoursMany of the other episodes were also really good. I’ll just mention four more briefly. Quais de Seine depicts a young Frenchman’s interest in a young, beautiful Islamic woman and in doing so calls for greater tolerance between faiths. The young man is place by the very cute Cyril Descours, shown here. Bastille, which stars Miranda Richardson and Sergio Castellitto as a couple brought back together by illness is both sweet and heartbreaking. Parc Monceau, starring Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier as a couple walking down a street is really well directed and takes place in one shot. Place des fêtes is the most tragic of all the stories. It’s incredibly well done in every way — directing, writing, acting. And Pigalle, starring Bob Hoskins and the radiantly beautiful and sexy Fanny Ardant, is also really sweet. It features an old love song that I wasn’t familiar with beforehand. Here’s a Youtube clip of the song:

The song’s great and the film uses it to good effect.

There were a few of the arrondissements that I thought didn’t work as well as the others. I have no idea what Porte de Choisy, which depicts a hair products salesman on a job, was doing. Place des Victoires, which stars Juliette Binoche as a grieving mother ultimately seemed too tritely resolved for the subject matter (though Binoche is wonderful, as usual, and makes another brief appearance at the end of the movie). Tour Eiffel, which is about mimes, might be too whimsical. And Quartier de la Madeleine, in which tourist Elijah Wood meets a vampire ends with a nice little twist but doesn’t really have the same heft as many of the more interesting episodes.

And finally, I guess I should say something about the only gay-themed story: Le Marais directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Elias McConnell and Gaspard Ulliel. In this episode, two young men meet when their respective employers having a meeting. While the episode is trying to say something beautiful about meeting one’s soulmate, it includes a plot twist that seems utterly stupid. Both characters in and of themselves are fine and the general plot and message are both ok, but one character’s initial inaction in a situation that any normal person would quickly handle differently is just too stupid for words. As the only gay story line, it’s rather disappointing.

Despite these disappointments, however, Paris, Je T’aime is a wonderful love note to the city of light. I definitely recommend it.

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