Outside of maybe the Spahn Movie Ranch, Paris is probably the most popular movie location of all time. Everything from Louis Lumière’s Le Tsar Nicolas II à Paris (1896) to The Devil Wears Prada has been shot there, and even when it was necessary to duplicate the city, as famously in Léos Carax’ The Lovers on the Bridge, there was still something magical about the Quais de Seine, especially for a pair of suicidal lovers who water-ski down the river under fireworks.
Love is the unifying theme in Paris, Je T’Aime, a light and slightly flaky brioche (or should it be a madeleine?) of an anthology film in which eighteen teams of filmmakers were assigned to make a five- or six-minute narrative short about a separate Parisian neighborhood under the guidance of writer Tristan Carné and producer Emmanuel Benbihy, who cooked up the concept. Each director or directorial team wrote its own vignette, and an interesting cast of international movie stars — with a decidedly American tilt — flocked to the job. And why not? Come to Paris for a little face time, eat and drink well, and fall in love. Ooh la la.
The producers apparently went out of their way to avoid cliché. Once we get past the Paris-Love equation, the choice of collaborators is surprisingly fresh — no Jean-Pierre Jeunet, no Audrey Tautou or Catherine Deneuve, only a soupçon of Gérard Depardieu, etc. A few of the filmmakers come across as tourists, but most strive to show the Paris that other movies somehow missed. Gus Van Sant, stationed in the gay mecca of Le Marais, gives us two of his patented surfer boys cruising each other in a printing shop while Marianne Faithfull looks on. On the Tuileries Metro platform, Joel and Ethan Coen couldn’t resist getting a wordless Steve Buscemi into his usual urban scrape. Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa populates the Place des Victoires with ghosts, including pale rider Willem Dafoe, before the eyes of a distraught Juliette Binoche. Olivier Assayas sets up Maggie Gyllenhaal as a movie actress looking to score some drugs, and also some love, in the Quartier des Enfants Rouges. Near the Parc Monceau, Nick Nolte finds himself babysitting an infant named Gaspard, courtesy director Alfonso Cuarón.
Tom Tykwer puts Natalie Portman and German actor Melchior Beslon through some Run, Lola, Run paces in the Faubourg Saint-Denis. Elijah Wood meets a sexy vampire in Canadian filmmaker Vincenzo Natali’s ultrastylish horror short, while shockmeister Wes Craven settles for a wry marital scene set in Père-Lachaise cemetery, where the ghost of Oscar Wilde (impersonated by filmmaker Alexander Payne) helps Rufus Sewell make up with wife Emily Mortimer. And the most skillful of the anthology’s “seniors in love” segments simply puts actors Gena Rowlands (chapeau!) and Ben Gazzara in a Quartier Latin cafe and lets them share wine and regrets, in a lovely tribute to John Cassavetes.
But the most resonant moments in Paris, Je T’Aime happen to be the bleakest, and they’re about immigrants and other outsiders. Catalina Sandino Moreno, in an exquisitely ironic slice of life by the team of Walter (The Motorcycle Diaries) Salles and Daniela Thomas, essentially portrays the same woman she played in Maria Full of Grace — only this time, instead of a drug-smuggling mula, she’s a Latin American laborer from the poor Parisian suburbs who takes a succession of public conveyances to her job as a nanny in the chic 16th Arrondissement, where she sings the same lullaby to her employer’s baby as she sang to her own child, parked in a nursery back in the banlieu. The misery tour continues with German director Oliver Schmitz’ short tale of an African immigrant (played by Seydou Boro from Burkina Faso), stabbed and dying in the street, another sad globalization story.
Not since Gene Kelly has an American in Paris been quite so good-naturedly appealing as Carol, a plain, overweight, middle-aged postal employee from Denver who, in director Alexander Payne’s gentle, moving vignette, has an epiphany sitting by herself on a park bench, eating a sandwich. Veteran actor Margo Martindale gives solo traveler Carol the resigned voiceover rationale of Jack Nicholson’s hapless retiree in About Schmidt. She’s nothing like the slim, cosmopolitan partygoers in some of the other stories. She butchers the French language and dines alone in the capital of love, but she’s satisfied with every single crumb. She’s been dreaming about this trip for years and now it’s even better than she imagined. Paris makes her feel alive. Us, too.