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May 23-29, 2007

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'Paris je t'aime'

Frédérique Barraja, Victoires International 2006
A walk on the Wilde side: Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell get involved with the ghost of Oscar Wilde in Wes Craven's segment of 'Paris je t'aime."

City of Many Lights

Eighteen directors look at Paris from many different angles in new anthology film 'Paris je t'aime'

By Richard von Busack

DESPITE its ooh-la-la title, Paris je t'aime is the most idiot-proof high-concept film in years. The current thought is that the future belongs more to YouTube than to the wide screen, so it's worthwhile to see heavy talent brought to the service of very short films. There are 18 in all; 17 if you don't count the bracketing story, although the cityscapes are particularly ravissement, gilded with tiny lights against heavy black velvet skies.

The final episode, Alexander Payne's The 14th Arrondissement, exemplifies everything that works in this assortment. Payne, who did Sideways, hits both the Montparnasse cemetery and the top of the skyscraper as the backdrop for the wanderings of a middle-age Denver postwoman (Margo Martindale), describing her six-day tour to her French class. Her language is flat, but her feelings are high; the film is rich with the openhearted sensibility Payne showed in the best moments of About Schmidt.

The emotions are lower-down in the Tuileries episode by the Coen brothers. I never get enough travel, so to make up for it, I pick up Lonely Planet guides and read about the terrible things that can happen to tourists. Because of this bad habit, I was probably too carried away by this short slapstick comedy set entirely in the Tuileries Metro. Peering into the camera with the reproachfulness of a walloped llama, Steve Buscemi sits; the tour book he's reading feeds his traveler's uneasiness. Its text fills the screen, as big as the script in Barton Fink. First, it comforts him with blather ("Paris is a city for lovers of art, for lovers ... of love"). Then it jitters him with precautions: "Do not make eye contact with strangers." Too late, Buscemi's wayward glance zooms 100 yards right into the furious stare of a jealous Latin rageball across the tracks.

Beside this pair of short, perfect films are others that use exteriors more than close-ups of the actors. Alfonso Cuarón's Parc Monceau is one-take one-shot, like his innovative tracking shots in Children of Men. At night, we experience Nick Nolte's rasp, slouch and walk, as he bends over a younger girl in a conversation that goes back and forth in Franglaise. The identity of the two figures—I mean, who they are to one another—is switched as deftly and cleverly as Chuck Berry's did in the last verse of his song "Memphis." Nothing looks better than colored lights under an overcast sky. Seeing the last shot of the carousel at the Square des Batignolles was like having a spear made of pure nostalgia shoved through my guts.

In order of noteworthiness after that comes the Tom Tykwer sequence; he works in one of the most lively and least photographed neighborhoods, the Faubourg Saint-Denis, with its crowds under the arch to Louis XIV. As an affair comes to a close, its life speeds through the mind's eye of a blind student (Melchior Beslon). His lover was an actress of many moods (Natalie Portman); just like Lola in Tykwer's Run Lola Run, she emits screams for no reason. Their relationship, rewound, then fast-forwarded, takes in a lot of Paris in a short time.

Ever since Ménilmontant, one of the classics of silent cinema, was made about the 20th arrondissement, it's just as well that none of the directors go there, except for Wes Craven, whose Emily Mortimer/Rufus Sewell episode involves the ghost of Oscar Wilde prowling Père Lachaise Cemetery. It deserves dismissal as a fancy version of Play It Again, Sam.

Olivier Schmitz's Place des Fêtes takes place in the more dangerous part of east Paris. A suave Nigerian (Seydou Boro) lies half-conscious in the Place des Fêtes, sweet-talking a woman who rescues him after a mugging. ("Lagos is safer," he jokes.) The episode unfolds with the street wisdom and tragedy of an Edith Piaf ballad. And Olivier Assayas' nighttown incident between a drug peddler and an actress (played with the usual neurotic delicacy by Maggie Gyllenhaal) made me wish that Gaspar Noe had been given one-eighteenth of Paris je t'aime—just for the sake of realism.

What was really weird here? Ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle haunts the bristling skyscrapers of the Porte de Choisy to watch a salesman (Barbet Schroeder) first get thrown out, then welcomed, at a Chinese beauty salon. This episode has been rated WTF by the MPAA.

Gurinder Chadha's Quais de Seine, set in the Fifth, is as didactic a snippet as you'll see outside of a public-service commercial. Vincenzo Natali's Quartier de la Madeleine goes from gore to goosh in record time as Elijah Wood befriends a vampire—both are surrounded by a pond of computer-animated phosphorescent crimson blood, like the kind Wood spilled so much of in Sin City.

I suspect the real breaking point for some will be the mime story, since there are still Americans who dread going to Paris for fear of being mocked by cream-faced loons in gooseneck sweaters. Sylvain Chomet—animated celebrator of Brassai-era Paris in The Triplets of Belleville—presents the happy adventures of one of these silent but deadly performers. Fortunately, the gendarmes throw him in jail where he belongs.

Reveling in the trad Paris identity of accordionism and mimes and the Eiffel Tower, despite the schisms and pressures that could be found in any city, Paris, je t'aime packs in the pleasures most films dole out. It's the only thing we'll see all summer that deserves a sequel.

Movie Times Paris, je t'aime (R; 120 min.), directed by Olivier Assayas and others and written by Tristan Carné and others, opens May 25.

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