Saturday, 10 February 2007

Paris, je'taime (2006)

The rules are simple and straightforward: Paris has 20 districts (or arrondissements, as they call them). Invite 20 directors from all over the world to make 20 short films, each lasting no more than 5 minutes, on each of the 20 districts. Stitch 18 of them together (2 directors created sequences that couldn't fit in with the rest) with brief sequences of overhead shots of Parisian traffic and architecture, and there, you have a film. It sounds impossible that such a film would be anywhere coherent, but then again, these 20 directors count among the most artistic filmmakers in the world, ranging from Gus Van Sant, Wes Craven, the Coen brothers, Christopher Doyle, Alexander Payne, Walter Salles, Richard LaGravenese, Sylvain Chomet, and more. Some of these names would be familiar, others less so, but almost all are mainstays in the film festival and indie scenes.

And what is this Paris that flits by 18 times in 2 hours? It is the Paris of popular imagination, the Paris according to directors from all over the world; the Paris inhabited by natives, immigrants, cosmopolitan visitors and casual tourists (as well as ghosts and vampires!); the infinite Parises we see through their experiences; the Paris of countless films past, and the Paris that directors now pay homage to - in short, Paris, the City of Love. And love, surprisingly, is completely different depending on who you ask, and all 18 answers have nothing to do with the hackneyed ideas that we read in cheap paperback romances about Paris. To Gus Van Sant, it is the feeling the triumphs over a series of beautiful but botched pickup lines; to the Coen Brothers, a cultural misunderstanding by the ugly American tourist; to Tom Tykwer, something that is keenly felt and realised only in its aftermath and passing; to Richard LaGravenese and Isabel Coixet, something that becomes true only when it is self-consciously performed.

And so 18 short films show the crucial moments when characters realise they've fallen in love, fallen out of love, have love rekindled, thwarted, awakened, relived, realised, and lost. They hit you in a perfect rhythm: just enough time to realise you've never quite seen any love story told in such an unconventional manner, or focusing on such a peculiar aspect of love, or told from such an unexpected angle (a muslim hijab sparks off a love affair, a mother's love for a child is sacrificed because she needs to babysit for another's, and what happens when two mimes fall in love?), and just enough time for you to realise that each short film is a perfectly formed miniature. But then, the short film has always been more difficult to write, direct, and realise to screen than a feature film, because its time constraints demands that the filmmakers demonstrate their point, maximise its impact, and make it so different yet emotionally true in order to impress audiences into remembering it 10 or 20 short films later. That all 18 directors succeed is a testament to the height of their skill to weave a short story that is both compelling and self-sufficient.

I cannot recall any other anthology film that has worked so well (most others have just 3-4 short stories in 2 hours), aside from the brilliant 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. A tribute to the late pianist, the movie consisted of 32 very different short films, each forming a different impression of the artists, through vastly different types of storytelling - comedy, drama, animation and so on. Paris, je t'aime has the same inspired genius and brilliant execution as 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, but it may be a far better film because it is made by not one, but 18 directors.

I would recommend Paris, je t'aime for lovebirds and lovers of Paris and short films. Its 18 unique and individualistic stories - romances, Murakami-styled miniatures, comedies, tragedies, and above all, whimsy - will appeal to romantics and cynics alike. The good news is that Paris, je t'aime is only the first of 3 movies. I'm already looking forward to the next ones on New York and Tokyo, and wondering which talented directors will be chosen for their 5 minutes in these movies.

First published at incinemas on 22 February 2007

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