Appellate Judge James A. Stewart was relieved to see this isn't a Paris Hilton biopic.
"Passionate Paris. Party Paris. Singing Paris. Heartfelt Paris. But also working Paris, commuting Paris. Ritzy, shabby, trashy Paris. Paris, you have a thousand faces. Paris, who are you?"
Everyone knows Paris. Paris is the Eiffel Tower, the Moulin Rouge, Fashion Week, the River Seine, the Louvre. Real or not, that's the Paris of mystical upbeat travelogue movies. Amelie Paris, you could call it.
While Amelie Paris was good for the box office and was followed up with Paris, Je T'aime and Avenue Montaigne, it does attack the stereotype of a foreign film, that of a gloomy, moody muddle. How can you reconcile the two notions? How about a downbeat travelogue? Instead of a charming French lass looking for love—for everyone around her—try a French guy sitting in his apartment, weakening as he awaits a heart transplant, looking out on the city he'd like to be out enjoying.
Facts of the Case
When there's a "but" in a doctor's diagnosis, it's usually a big one. After a month of brooding about it, Pierre (Romain Duris, Moliere) tells his sister Élise (Juliette Binoche, The English Patient) that he may require a heart transplant, and, even when he gets it, there's only a forty percent chance of success. Her first reaction is anger because he waited a month, but the single mom soon is camping with her kids in Pierre's small flat. While he waits, Pierre looks out on the city from his balcony. Somehow, this leads viewers into the stories of a professor (Fabrice Luchini, Molière) who reluctantly joins the "popularization" movement of TV documentaries, a Cameroon native hoping to move to Paris, a bakery owner taking on a North African assistant, and the people who staff the nearby market, including Jean (Albert Dupontel, Chrysalis), a possible love interest for Élise.
What surprised me is that Paris actually turned out to be a travelogue sort of movie, even framed around a depressing storyline like waiting for a heart transplant. You get to see the sites, but in a new way: Pierre danced at the Moulin Rouge, and the Eiffel Tower is seen from his window; a fashionista befriends the man from Cameroon, and she and her friends head to the market at night for an impromptu tour; and the professor shows the city's sights while filming his documentary. Seeing the market in the middle of the night makes for an unusual slice of Parisian life, although putting supermodel types next to hanging meat carcasses and rows of produce is almost as surreal as a dream sequence that puts one character in an artist's rendering of future construction. Some of my favorite scenes were the market scenes as Élise shops. Director Cédric Klapisch has a good ear for dialogue. The ordinariness of the banter, with chatter in the background as well as the foreground, as people buy their avocados makes it feel authentic. The large cast switches well between this sort of scene and the more dramatic scenes in the movie.
The movie is beautiful. Klapisch is fond of sweeping views, putting characters on a balcony or observation deck and panning to show everything behind them. Often, he's searching for interesting detail, putting little bits of unique Paris in every scene. The balance between the typical tourist scenes and the everyday resident scenes is handled well. Interestingly, the score creates a sense of that mystical Paris, even as the characters frequently listen to American music, with one singing rock 'n roll in French, a la the famous Johnny Hallyday.
There are some fantastic moments, either touching, as when Pierre and Élise explain to her kids about his likely imminent demise, or funny, as when the prof tells his brother that he's gone into therapy and blows up about his brother always being "perfect," leading the brother to seek a consolation from his wife, which would send most people into despair.
The main extra is a behind-the-scenes film, The Heart of Paris: A Film by Frederic Chaudier. It has some interesting scenes of film industry picketing as the movie was being shot, and shooting a movie amid heavy traffic and city activity. Interestingly, it puts the character names next to the actors' names so you can see who everyone is. The scenes aren't framed quite as elegantly as in the movie itself, but it's done with flair. There's also a trailer, done with the usual clumsiness. I'd recommend taking time to watch the behind-the-scenes movie first, but skipping the trailer altogether.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Paris eventually runs into the reason that those other travelogue movies are upbeat, with little happy stories. Simply put, it's been cutting back and forth, up and down, and all around so much that the sad or bittersweet moments don't have the impact they would if Klapisch hadn't tried to do so many slices of Parisian life. I didn't get a pause to reflect on the tragic twists in the stories, and the main storyline doesn't feel resolved at the end. A little less ambition would have made these stories resonate more. At the end, Pierre's assertion, "That's Paris. No one's ever happy," sounds like a foreign film existential cliché rather than the insight it's meant to be.
On the bright side, not everyone appears unhappy at the end. The sensual, steamy joie de vivre that Juliette Binoche puts into a romantic encounter provides a note of optimism, not just glimpses of her barely clad body. Still, everyone else seems miserable.
Moving too fast made Paris a movie I liked, rather than a movie I loved. Its juxtapositions occasionally feel absurd, but they accomplish the trick of showcasing a less-postcard Paris. Paris might disappoint you if you're looking for Amelie, but if you go in knowing this is a sadder city, you'll find a more intriguing portrait of Paris, even as the uneven moments and hints of pretension let you know that it's still just a movie.
Not perfect, but not guilty.
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