One of the biggest, most surprising delights at the cinema in 2007 was Paris, Je T'aime, a collection of eighteen short films by different writers and directors, each set in a different Parisian neighborhood. The international crew of creators entered into the project with one simple mission: tell their own story about the City of Light, featuring personal impressions and the kinds of personalities one might find in the assigned area. There would be no linking up, no cutesy crossovers, just eight or so minutes per episode, adding up to one two-hour movie.
It's an idea that almost shouldn't have worked. Turns out, it had kind of been done before, though the film Six in Paris, made in 1965, limited its scope to a sextet of France-based filmmakers working in much longer segments. Paris, Je T'aime reached out across the world and pulled from a much broader base. One would expect a mixed bag, a handful of decent films surrounded by some not very inspired ones, but Paris, Je T'aime happily defies all such doubts. Though some of the eighteen shorts are more successful than others, the base quality that they all manage to stay above is quite good, and in most cases, the results are exceptional.
Just about every type of story is represented here. There is heart-breaking drama (Juliette Binoche as the grieving mother in Nobuhiro Suwa's "Place des Victoires"), slapstick comedy (the Coen Bros. going down in the Metro for "Tuileries"), romance (two teenagers reaching across the cultural divide in "Quais de Seine"), and even horror (new Bond girl Olga Kurylenko as a vampire chasing Elijah Wood in the "Quartier de la Madeleine"). There are stories about adolescents meeting for the first time ("Quais de Seine"), soon-to-be newlyweds (Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell in Wes Craven's wry "Père-Lachaise"), and the most-welcome inclusion of older actors, as well. In two of the more affecting pieces, we see aging lovers on either side of the bliss divide. In Richard LaGravenese's "Pigalle," the stunning Fanny Ardant and Bob Hoskins are married actors whose love life has hit some rocky patches, but who rediscover romance in the seediest of places. On the flipside, in Gerard Depardieu and Frédéric Auburtin's "Quartier Latin," a husband and wife, played by Cassavetes regulars Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands, meet over a bittersweet bottle of wine to settle their divorce.
The remarkable thing about Paris, Je T'aime is how each filmmaker's personality still comes to the fore. None of them really surrender to the concept so completely that they are obliterated by it. In the less successful pieces, that actually turns out to be a bad thing. For instance, Christopher Doyle is a little too silly and unfocused, more visually interesting than he is narratively compelling, in his tale of "Porte de Choisy," the Parisian Chinatown. Though, at least he tries harder than Gus Van Sant, whose segment of scruffy boys talking about Kurt Cobain in "Le Marais" is such self-parody, it practically stops to laugh at itself.
Elsewhere, the freedom for each director to be who he or she is brings about much more impressive results. The Coens, for instance, with their exaggerated comedy, or Alfonso Cuaron's single shot, walking monologue between Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier in "Parc Monceau." Cuaron's piece is actually an excellent example of how to tell a story in a short period using very little, beginning with some misdirection, unveiling added information slowly, and then ending with a solid punchline.
Another of my favorites is Tom Tykwer's "Faubourg Saint-Denis," a love story between a slightly unbalanced actress (Natalie Portman) and her blind boyfriend (Melchior Beslon). Using his time wisely, Tykwer's script explores the differences of perception between his two lovers while also playing with the perception of his audience. It's a case where the restriction of time and space is overcome by not being beholden to either, an ability the German director has always had. While Tykwer finds a way to soar within the boundaries, French director Olivier Assayas benefits from letting the restraint keep him down to Earth. An often pretentious, unmoored filmmaker (see Irma Vep as an example of when he gets away with it, Boarding Gate for when it fails), Assayas uses his eight minutes to tell an uncomplicated story, letting Maggie Gyllenhaal's natural allure hold his audience's attention while he slices a tiny sliver off of life.
And really, that's all that any of these episodes are, slices of Paris life. No one makes an attempt to be overly demonstrative or overly French. Not even Sylvain Chomet being stuck with the Eiffel Tower ends up being burdened by the famous landmark; rather, he uses it to play around with French clichés, relating the day one mime fell in love with another mime, and lampooning stereotypes about tourists from other countries even as he sends-up what they would expect to see in his.
One short film rolls into another, the transitions being merely a change in landscape, reminding us that wherever we go, people are just people. Perhaps part of the success of the movie is the fact that so many of the artists involved are not natives, and so they have to stretch to find themselves in this foreign place. The arrangement of the pieces also makes a big difference, never letting the proceedings get too heavy or too light, moving from day to night and back to day. It would be no coincidence, then, that the final segment in Paris, Je T'aime is the ultimate story of an outsider discovering the charm of the city she is visiting. In Alexander Payne's "14th arrondissement," a middle-aged American woman (Margo Martindale) visiting Paris for the first time walks the streets on her own, seeking out the culture and the charm of the urban landscape. A lot of what she chooses to visit is mundane, as is her choice in cuisine (hamburgers, Chinese food), but as she explains in her voiceover, told in stiff and broken French, the key to loving Paris is not its landmarks or its art or any of the fancy things we expect. It's in just being a part of it, simply sitting there in the midst of life and letting it happen around you and, if you're gutsy enough, becoming a part of it.
Paris, Je T'aime has been on DVD before. In fact, it was this same time last year that the movie was first released on DVD in region 1 in two separate formats, a single disc release and a limited double-disc package that I believe is currently out of print. This current release exactly mirrors that previous 2-DVD set, with disc 1 being exactly the same in all three editions. The only difference this time around is that the two discs come in a "steelbook" case, which for those who don't know, is exactly as it sounds: a metal book that holds the DVDs.
The only other extra on the main disc is a set of trailers from First Run Features.
DVD 2 is largely comprised of 18 individual documentaries, ranging from 6 to 9 minutes, one for each of the segments in the film. Just like the shorts themselves, these range in mood and tone based on the actual crew. Assayas' piece, for instance, is rather subdued, while Cuaron's is more tense due to some problems with the steadicam. These are all good and informative, and go more in depth than the catch-all documentary on DVD 1 (both draw from the same source). Unfortunately, there is no "Play All" function, you must choose each featurette one at a time. While I'm complaining, I'd also like to note that it would have been nice for there to have been a printed chapter selection in the package somewhere indicating the order of the stories in Paris, Je T'aime and who worked on each of them.
Two of the more visually interesting segments of the movie are shown in storyboard form. Vincenzo Natali's vampire tale, "Quartier de la Madeleine," is shown as straight storyboards, while the fanciful "Tour Eiffel" is presented as a split-screen comparing the boards to the final shots.
Finally, the second disc has the original theatrical trailer for Paris, Je T'aime.