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Photograph by David Koskas
CITY GIRL: Juliette Binoche explores 'Paris.'

High Windows

Cédric Klapisch's 'Paris' takes in the multiple moods of the City of Light

By Richard von Busack

I WOULD LOVE some chiming-in from experts on urban history, but I think that a modern stage in city living began when the garret became the penthouse. In other words, when the extreme upstairs of a six- or seven-story building began to be loved for its commanding view of the city, instead of hated as the final end of a serious flight of stairs leading to a low-ceilinged vault, leaking in the rain, freezing in the winter and roasting in summer. There's a sweet old song about Paris, "Venez donc chez moi," that celebrates a view that's next to the stars, while apologizing for the hike up seven floors.

Director/writer Cédric Klapisch, in his new film Paris, takes up his study of the city from where he left off in When the Cat's Away . That film ended with Garance Clavel's Chloé shouting out to her Bastille neighborhood from the top of the July Column—trying to call back everything being lost to redevelopment.

In Paris, Klapisch takes to the heights of the city again, only this time on all sides—Montmartre, the helipad at the Tour Montparnasse, the Eiffel Tower—to watch over a metropolis becoming less recognizable to him every day. The director probably should have completed his theme by putting a camera on a construction crane, pulling up one of the new steel and glass buildings making the City of Light look like any other city.

There is one more view from a great height—the top floor of a Haussmann-era building on a steep hill in working-class Ménilmontant, directly above Gambetta Metro. There, a former chorus dancer at the Moulin Rouge, Pierre (Romain Duris), is mortally ill with a heart condition. He is the center of a web of people; yes, Paris is another dreaded tag-team movie, but Klapisch insists on informal, glancing links between the people—a democratic caroming off of the locals regardless of class. "Uppityness" is the word he uses.

So Paris is fundamentally loose and flexible, rather than overdetermined and message-heavy. Pierre's sister, Élise (Juliette Binoche), a social worker, moves in to nurse Pierre, bringing her brood of charming, fatherless children. The movie pulls away from this ménage to see the neighborhood, just as Pierre watches from his high window because he can't take the stairs with his bad heart.

The film is like a pile of jackstraws, rather than a solid structure; the loosest ends are the subplots in Cameroon and North Africa, where new immigrants are trying to get to where the euros are.

There's so much ambient talent here that Klapisch finds something interesting in every angle. Binoche's beauty is getting lusher as she ages, a charm that's amplified by deliberate goofiness, like her striptease out of layers of winter clothes. In a smaller role, Karin Viard is as comical as Kristen Wiig, playing a riotously bigoted bakery owner. The back-and-forth teasing that goes on in a street market is the alternative to her arch old-school politeness.

The ace comic actor Fabrice Luchini plays a Sorbonne professor with the culturally significant name of Roland, who is trying to take the liberal view of change. In class, Roland insists that the tensions between past and present energize a city. He's maintains a correct, logical view of his own crisis: his urbane denial of grief over the death of his 95-year-old father, whom he just buried in Père Lachaise. He has harshly logical dealings with his brother, an architect helping to build the new Paris.

Roland is undone by temptations: first, to make some money on a TV documentary series on Parisian history. The job means the give and take of "democratization" (the nice way to say "dumbing down"). On the one hand, he gets to introduce viewers to the room where Baudelaire wrote "Invitation to the Voyage"; on the other hand, Roland has to interact with a costumed actor pretending to be Baudelaire, bowing to the viewer. Perhaps as a coping mechanism, Roland falls for an irresistible student half his age (Mélanie Laurent, a cruel-looking stunner) with predicable consequences.

The ripples widen to the emotional crises of the shoulders rubbed along the way. We see the working life of the street-market fruit peddlers, who at the end of the film are visited by a group of partying, slumming models. One pair starts making love among the beef carcasses. Staging this in a film is the definition of a bad idea that's so bad it somehow comes out at the other end as good, and that's what's meant by the transformative nature of cinema.

Klapisch must have filmed these many scenes at Rungis, reputedly the biggest wholesale market in the world, in the same way previous artists were drawn to the previous wholesale market Les Halles, "the belly of Paris."

Filling up a screen with Paris is always an excellent strategy. Due to the gloaming overcast, it seems like it's the magic hour there 24 hours a day. Klapisch makes this a thoughtful, optimistic study of a city's ever-constant decline and refreshment, through the arrival of new blood and the ebbing of the old. It's a movie that tries to make peace with this passing scene; as Klapisch says, "an ephemeral portrait of an eternal city."

It may have just been the cityscapes that got me—the winter views from that high window in Ménilmontant, with the distant Tour D'Eiffel lit up like a roman candle for Christmas, will break your heart. But I'm wondering for the dozenth time why no one seems to be able to make a movie this good about San Francisco, with its similar depths and heights, its crotchety long-timers and brash arrivistes , and the similar tensions between the beloved old and the threatening new.

Movie Times PARIS (R; 130 min.), directed and written by Cédric Klapisch, photographed by Christophe Beaucarne and starring Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris, opens Sept. 25.

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