Bring together some of cinema’s most eclectic, acclaimed directors (Alexander Payne, Alfonso Cuaron, the Coen brothers) and toss in some of the most intriguing actors working today (Steve Buscemi, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maggie Gyllenhaal) for a series of shorts celebrating the spirit of Paris and you could either end up with an inspiring mix or a rambling mess.
Thankfully, “Paris, Je T’aime” tends more toward the former than the latter.
As with any collection such as this, the results can be hit and miss; some shorts tell a complete story and leave you feeling wowed, charmed or moved, while others barely register. With 18 pieces in all, there should be something here to tantalize everyone’s tastes, or at least prompt you to contact your travel agent to book a vacation.
Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”) presents a lovely slice of life with an early entry, “Quais de Seine.” Teenage Francois (Cyril Descours) goofs off with his buddies, hassling women walking by, until he sees a beautiful Muslim girl (Leila Bekhti) take a tumble right in front of him. He helps her up, gets to know her and is smitten. The story could have been preachy or politically correct, but Chadha, as writer and director, finds just the right touch.
Probably the funniest segment, “Tuileries,” comes from Joel and Ethan Coen and stars one of their favorite players, Buscemi, as an American tourist who breaks one of his guidebook’s cardinal rules while waiting on the Metro platform (“Eye contact should be avoided!”). Just the extreme close-ups of his expressive mug are good for a laugh, but then the situation becomes hilarious as it steadily grows more violent.
Gus Van Sant’s contribution, “Le Marais,” is extremely Gus Van Sant, for better and for worse. Two men (Gaspard Ulliel and Elias McConnell) have a cosmic meeting at a printer’s shop — well, at least one of them thinks it’s cosmic — and for a long time it feels like nothing’s happening, but if you stick with it, there’s a payoff.
“Loin du 16eme,” from Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, is so engaging you wish it would go on longer. Sandino Moreno, the Oscar-nominated star of “Maria Full of Grace,” plays a young immigrant who leaves her baby and her working-class neighborhood early in the morning for the long commute to a wealthier part of the city, where she’s the nanny for another woman’s baby. What she does with her eyes alone is so subtle, but it says everything.
Cuaron mesmerizes with his surprising, single-take “Parc Monceau.” A craggy middle-aged American man (Nick Nolte, who’s honed that persona to perfection) meets up with a young French woman (Ludivine Sagnier) and walks down the street with his arm around her. The two have a spirited, intimate discussion but the talk — and the characters — don’t go where you might initially suspect they will.
But then the next short, Olivier Assayas’ “Quartier des Enfants Rouges,” is a letdown by comparison. Gyllenhaal stars as an American actress who’s working on a film in Paris (and she speaks flawless French, by the way). Feeling bored and alone, she turns to drugs to fulfill her longings, but ends up unsatisfied. So do we.
“Pigalle” from Richard LaGravenese features strong performances from Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant as a longtime couple falling out of love, but the short itself feels like a gimmick.
Things pick up again with “Quartier Latin,” from directors Frederic Auburtin and Gerard Depardieu starring the stunning Gena Rowlands, who also wrote the script. Rowlands and Ben Gazzara play an estranged husband and wife who meet for drinks the night before they sign their divorce papers. Everything about it is classy, smart and sharp.
“Paris, Je T’aime” ends on an unexpectedly wistful note (though it could also be hopeful, depending on your perspective) with Payne’s “14eme Arrondissement.” Margo Martindale, a middle-aged American postal worker, wanders around the city alone, detailing in a voiceover what she did during her vacation in awkward, self-taught French.
It’s not sexy or stylish or glamorous or any of the things you might assume Paris would be before going there. But of all the segments that comprise the film, it comes the closest to depicting honestly what it feels like to fall in love.