Paris (France, 2008)September 26, 2009
The characters forming the framework of Paris could live and breathe in any city across the world, but the location in which Cédric Klapisch's tale unwinds is integral to the fabric of the movie. Like Woody Allen and New York, Klapisch allows his love for his city to emerge on screen. While there are plenty of shots of "touristy" destinations (such as the Eiffel Tower), there are also images of parts of the city that visitors rarely see. It's in these areas that the characters inhabiting this movie go about their daily routines, living, loving, crying, and dying.
Paris shares with its viewers two separate "umbrella" narratives that occur in the same general place and time. The characters from one do not cross over to the other and the connections, such as they are, are tenuous (and usually involve watching through windows). There are side stories as well in which the participants are less developed. These are tangential, but when Klapisch introduces a new character, he likes to spend some time with that individual, even if the ultimate result feels like a dead-end. Not much happens during the course of the movie but, as with all good dramas, the protagonists are richly drawn and the events of their lives become of interest. Paris keeps us involved not because of momentous plot developments but because the production incites our curiosity to see what will happen next.
As the film opens, we learn that Pierre (Romain Duris) has been handed a potential death sentence by his doctor. A 30-something dancer, Pierre has a heart defect that will kill him within a year unless he obtains a heart transplant, and even that only gives him a 40-50% chance of continued survival. His older sister, Elise (Juliette Binoche), with her kids in tow, moves into his apartment with the goal of taking care of him. In a way, it's an extension of her day-job as a social worker. Pierre spends a lot of time gazing out over the city through his window, watching people go about their daily lives and imagining things about them. One of the women he watches is Laetitia (Mélanie Laurent), a university student who lives in a nearby building. She is being pursued by her 50-something history professor, Roland (Fabrice Luchini), although she doesn't know it. Embarrassed to be infatuated with a student, Roland sends her suggestive text messages then watches covertly to see her reactions when she reads them. He is a sad and lonely man, and the happiness of his brother, Philippe (François Cluzet, the French Dustin Hoffman lookalike), whose wife is expecting a baby, only makes him sadder. He pines for Laetitia and convinces himself that he loves her, but he lacks the gumption to act. Other characters orbiting these principals include a snobbish baker, a group of market workers, and a man in Cameroon trying to make his way to France.
Klapisch's tone is light and the pretentiousness that pervades many French films is entirely absent. The conversations are brief and airy, occasionally touching on deep subjects but rarely dwelling on them. There's a fair amount of comedy, although most is of the subtle variety. Even though there is a death and a serious illness, Paris is a celebration of life and love set against the backdrop of one of the world's most storied cities.
Effective character-based stories rarely tie up all the loose ends, and Paris is no exception. While some plotlines are followed to their natural conclusions (a baby is born, a romance breaks up), others conclude ambiguously or not at all. As the end credits began, I found myself wishing for more, not only to learn how things turned out for the character whose fate hangs in the balance, but to spend a few more minutes (or hours) with everyone else. Two hours is long enough to get to know these people and gain an understanding of their lives, but all of them are sufficiently interesting to warrant a longer look.
Paris is a beneficiary of the distribution model being followed by both IFC and Magnolia for a select group of foreign language and independent American films that are deemed suitable only for art-house viewing. These two companies have begun offering the titles on cable TV (via a pay-per-view video-on-demand model) beginning the same day they open in a limited art house run. This way, those who are not within convenient traveling distance of a theater showing the movie have an alternative way to see fare of this sort. As small, obscure movies become increasingly marginalized in theaters, this may be the wave of the future for titles like Paris. If they're all as good as this one and Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking (which is another IFC property currently being accorded the same treatment), this may be a godsend for film lovers.
Paris (France, 2008)
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Albert Dupontel, François Cluzet, Karin Viard, Mélanie Laurent, Julie Ferrier
Screenplay: Cédric Klapisch
Cinematography: Christophe Beaucarne
Music: Robert 'Chicken' Burke, Loic Dury, Christophe Minck
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films