Paris. The word is so evocative that, just standing alone, it conjures up images of chic fashion, famous landmarks and bright lights. Yet if we skip past strings of onions and the striped-shirt-wearing accordion player sporting a rather questionable moustache, we arrive at something even more stereotypical: love.
I adore French films for their innovative plots and camerawork, it was after all in France that the concept of cinematography was born. When I purchased Paris, je t’aime, (a shiny DVD copy as opposed to VCR – I’m moving up in the world!) the title perhaps hinted that if I wanted a film about guns or monster truck races I was to be sorely disappointed.
Although predictable in its love obsessed plot, (apologies to any hard nuts, I suggest you save yourselves and leave now) Paris, je t’aime surprisingly had me hooked from the moment I pressed play. It’s refreshingly unique in that it challenges the usual feature film template, by refusing to accept the constraints of blockbuster etiquette. Instead, it opts for a more creative approach regarding form. Split into eighteen short films set in eighteen different neighbourhoods of gay Paree, the film holds a thoughtful magnifying glass up to the people who populate them. This team effort, so to speak, means that a wealth of actors (including Bob Hoskins, Willem Dafoe and Natalie Portman) and directors (such as legendary American filmmakers the Coen brothers) of different ages and nationalities collaborate, mimicking the very diversity that the streets of Paris itself has to offer.
By having this unusual structure, Paris, je t’aime just has so much going on that it would be impossible for me to speak about the film as a whole, as it simply does not function as one entity. However, one section that particularly deserves a mention is the vampire love story: enter Elijah Wood as a young, rather bedraggled looking traveller. Comic genius radiates from the screen the moment he stumbles upon a vampiress who’s sucking the life out of some poor bloke as casually as if he were a Mars Bar. This is definitely one for young and old as, with delightfully retro Sin City-esque attention to detail, the viewer is treated to sprays of neon blood and spooky 80’s horror sound effects. Even the costume adheres to the theme, with textbook gothic dress, glistening fangs and white, soulless eyes – none of your trembling Twilight pansies here.
Admittedly my sentimentality has been known to rear its pink and fluffy head from time to time, and the onslaught of compulsory tearjerkers and chance encounters definitely satisfied the romantic within me. However, my one criticism of the film is that, in places, filmmakers’ attempts to let the viewer create their own ending just left me feeling thwarted. Take the story shot in the Le Marais region of Paris. Without giving too much away, I can divulge to you the following: interesting concepts about spirituality and fate are presented; stylistically, the scenes are all things chic and Parisian, with wine, cigarettes and passion; and the two unlikeliest of people have a connection so moving that my tear ducts threatened to explode. So why, I beg of you Mr. Director, would you choose to end such a potentially monumental short film with the dreaded ambiguous cliff-hanger? I wanted some sort of satisfying resolution, not a man sprinting silently through the streets for what seemed an eternity, clutching only a dog-eared piece of papier in his hand.
Threadbare endings aside, filmmakers definitely achieved their goal of giving a glimpse of “petites romances de quartiers,” (little neighbourhood romances) by utilising such a diverse and vibrant inventory of characters. Whilst Oscar Wilde’s ghost, a grieving mother and a blind man may appeal to a shuddering-shouldered softy clutching the Kleenex, the unconventional side of love is also portrayed. Take the troubled actress who is completely and utterly infatuated with…her drug dealer. Classy. The stabbed busker, the comical mimes – all of these characters not only contribute to the rich tapestry of Parisian life, but are also significant in the ideologies they present. For example, appalling stereotypes are smashed when a youngster discovers there is more to a pretty Muslim girl than her hijab and the Osama Bin Laden jokes his dim-witted chums compose.
And the film takes a turn for the bizarre when we visit the neighbourhood of Porte de Choisy, where businessman Monsiuer Henny gingerly attempts to sell products formulated for asian hair problems. “WHAT PROBLEMS DO ASIANS HAVE?” barks the sultry salon owner, whose kung fu skills rival those of Jackie Chan himself. The ensuing scenes are so surreal that they border on the hysterical, with robed monks and Chinese dancers twirling paper umbrellas in unison and Henny himself bursting into song, West End style. Just when I thought the whole project had lost me, our Chinese temptress remarks that “Henny” sounds like “ai ni”, Mandarin for “I love you” – a poignant reminder of what the whole film is about.
Non-french speakers, do not be put off by the language barrier. The optional English subtitles are easy to keep up with and the film’s concentration on setting and detail means that less emphasis is put on dialogue – though it can be useful for drawing together the film’s central themes. “That was the moment I fell in love with Paris. And I felt Paris fall in love with me,” remarks Carol, a vivacious American who highlights the powerful connection one can feel to a place. The film is much like Paris itself: you may just fall in love with it, or you may not, but there’s no denying that it’s a fascinating view. Just don’t forget the tissues.