It’s a collage of miniatures, a collection of gemlike vignettes. In “Paris, je t’aime,” 21 directors of various nationalities create 18 bite-size shorts (the longest being five minutes) about Paris, each one named after a Parisian neighborhood. Like a plate of hors d’oeuvres from a five-star restaurant they’re expertly crafted, lovely to behold and offer distinct, individual taste experiences.
Ultimately, the stories aren’t about Paris per se, but involve universal experiences and conditions, but how can the city not tinge them with a particular poetry.
There’s discourse on life, relationships and even the supernatural, and how the yearning for love can be so strong but its bonds extremely fragile. In a segment called “Quartier Latin,” (directed by Frederic Auburtin and Gerard Depardieu) a divorced American couple meet in a restaurant (the talk is of wine, lawyers and papers) to finalize their situation. The ex-husband (an impeccable Ben Gazarra) and the ex-wife (the lovely-as-always Gena Rowlands) are frostily polite, but it’s clear that old wounds still smart like hell despite the solicitous attentions of the bartender played by an atypically inconspicuous Depardieu.
That one was executed with elegance and style, but many of the others have a gritty, documentarylike feel and these turn out to be the most moving. “Loin du 16e (Far From the 16th Arrondisement)” directed by Brazil’s Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, is a poignant, ironic look at two women of Paris, who are divided by class and income. One is a young South American mother, Ana (Catalina Sandino Moreno), who wakes at dawn, drops her baby off at day care and boards a series of subways to get to an opulent apartment in the 16th, where another baby awaits. Her employer is an unseen, obviously more privileged mom who casually informs Ana that she’ll have to stay an hour later than usual before making a quick exit. This little view into class distinctions reflects a bigger issue; any visitor to Paris will notice that the people who clean, sweep, work on construction sites, cart the trash, etc. etc. — are mostly those from Africa and South America who live in council estate housing scattered in suburbs just outside the city.
Speaking of council-estate housing, “Paris” features two other shorts that are a far cry from guidebook Paris — “Palace des fe^tes” (directed by South African Oliver Schmitz) is a neighborhood that’s heavily North African. Hemmed in from all sides by gray, high-rise concrete apartment blocks, the setting is an aspect of Paris rarely glimpsed in French cinema, but the story that takes place is as artfully crafted, poetic and full of pathos as anything by a 1960s Nouvelle Vague director. A young African musician Hassan (Seydou Boro) is bullied and finally stabbed by a gang of thugs; trying to rescue him is Sophie (Aissa Maiga), a young paramedic new to the job. Hassan recognizes Sophie and asks for a cup of coffee to be brought. He had met her briefly months ago, and had dreamed of taking her out for a coffee since then. A dying man and a woman connect over two cups for a fleeting few seconds and this being Paris the coffee doesn’t come in paper cups, but attractive blue crockery — a stroke of brilliance that says many things about Parisian sensitivity and sensuality.
“Port de choisy,” by Christopher Doyle (longtime cinematographer for Wong Kar-wai and other Hong Kong directors) on the other hand, has one of the largest, busiest Chinatowns in the EU. Wedged right in his comfort zone, Doyle makes relentless fun of white shampoo salesman Monsieur Henny (Barbet Schroeder) as he flounders among the strange signs and incomprehensible language, trying in vain to get some sales talk across to beauty salon owner Madame Li (Li Xin). Doyle attempts to turn the tables on Asian and white stereotypes here by contrasting the madame’s resplendent dark hair against those of her Chinese customers, clamoring for western styles so popular all across Asia. In the end, however, Doyle fails to say anything new about East/West dynamics — in the end Monsieur Henny kneels by the 20-cm heels of the statuesque Madame Li, but he still hasn’t managed to carry off a remotely meaningful conversation with her.
In terms of being radical, if mean-spirited, the award probably goes to “14e Arrondisement” by U.S. director Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) who deploys just one character: a middle-aged, overweight American tourist called Carol (Margo Martindale). Stomping the cobblestoned streets to her own voice-over narrative recounting her six-day Parisian trip (for which she had saved up for years and taken French lessons), Carol looks so damnably American (the waist-bag, chunky sneakers, dowdy clothes, frizzy hair) she may as well have the Stars and Stripes draped over her shoulder. Her earnest attempts to speak French to the locals only draws amused replies in exotically accented English. “And yet, I feel that Paris loves me,” Carol narrates in her broad, twangy French, and it would seem that this feeling is the single most precious thing anyone can have in this city, whether they live here or not.