French Kiss

Paris Je T’Aime
Running Time 120 minutes
Directed by
Olivier Assayas,
Alfonso Cuarón, Joel and Ethan Coen et. al
Written by
Gurinder Chadha, Gus Van Sant, Gena Rowlands et al.
Starring Juliette Binoche, Elijah Wood, Nick Nolte, Maggie Gyllenhaal

A valentine to the City of Light, Paris, Je T’Aime threatens no electrical power outages, but it does leave a nice candlelight glow—nothing to scoff at, since candlelight on the Avenue Foch is better than a klieg light on Hollywood Boulevard.

This is a lavish, expensive compilation film of 18 vignettes, directed by 21 world-famous directors (three of them working in teams), featuring an elaborate cast of international stars, about how people of all nations and persuasions experience varied feelings of love (and other emotions) in the diverse neighborhoods of the world’s most beautiful city. Connected only by gorgeous shots of Paris at every hour of day and night, the film is a mixed bag that illustrates the disparate styles of a wide spectrum of directors united only in their passion for the city you can love or hate, but never ignore. The point is: You cannot go to Paris without feeling something.

Moving through the streets and arrondissements, the directors paint their own personal canvases of life as diverse as their creators’ backgrounds and nationalities. On the banks of the Seine, three rude loafers taunt and insult women until a Muslim girl trips and falls. One of the boys helps her readjust her veil, and while she explains its origins and symbolism, he becomes intrigued enough to abandon his friends and follow her to a mosque, opening up his narrow world to the possibility of new experiences. In a printing shop in the Marais, Gus Van Sant’s camera captures a strong physical attraction between two boys that borders on spirituality when a visitor falls nervously for the printer’s apprentice. He prattles on nervously in French, but the object of his attention has nothing to say. It’s only after he leaves that the apprentice reveals he hardly speaks a word of French and has no way of knowing what the fellow was saying.

Brazil’s Walter Salles moves to a grim suburb where a young immigrant mother rises at dawn, leaves her baby in a day nursery, and travels for hours to the posh 16th Arrondissement in the heart of the city to her job as a nanny to a rich woman’s child. Both children receive the same love and care. In one of the best episodes, Spain’s Isabel Coixet tells of an unfaithful husband (Sergio Castellitto), on the verge of asking his wife (the great British actress Miranda Richardson) for a divorce, who discovers she has just been diagnosed with terminal leukemia. Nobly accepting his duty, he stays on to care for her and finds renewed purpose and contentment in their marriage. Now that she needs him, he falls in love with his “patient” all over again, and when she dies, something in his heart dies, too. Japan’s Nobuhiro Suwa builds a fairy-tale charm out of tragedy: Juliette Binoche plays a distraught mother who gives up on life after the death of her young son, who loved American cowboy movies. One night she follows the sound of his voice into the rainy street, where she spends one last loving visit with him, thanks to an American cowboy (Willem Dafoe) who has become the child’s guardian angel.

Late at night in a dark alley in the Quartier de la Madeleine, a young man (Elijah Wood) comes face to face with a vampire. She decides to spare him, but he’s so besotted that he chooses to go to any length to have her, even if it means becoming a vampire himself. In the Parc Monceau, Mexico’s Alfonso Cuarón follows an aging American (Nick Nolte) whose long affair with a younger woman is going through a crisis now that her affections for him have shifted to someone named Gaspard. Turns out Gaspard is a baby. On a movie location in the Quartier des Enfants Rouges, Maggie Gyllenhaal is a bored American actress who falls dangerously for her drug dealer; Olivier Assayas helmed this one, tediously.

Horror maven Wes Craven shows an English couple (Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell) arguing in the Père-Lachaise cemetery and breaking off their engagement at the site where Oscar Wilde is buried. They are reunited with help from the ghost of Wilde himself, amusingly played by American director Alexander Payne (Sideways). Mr. Payne returns with Margo Martindale, giving a poignant performance as a lonely middle-aged mail deliverer from Denver who studies French for two years, saves her money, and takes her first trip to Paris for six days, expecting magic. Alone and homesick, the beauty of the city floods her with memories of all the missed opportunities in her empty life, yet all is not lost. “I fell in love with Paris … and I felt Paris fell in love with me.”

Finally, my favorite contribution: In a cozy café in the Latin Quarter, Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara reunite as an estranged American couple who meet in Paris for a friendly divorce. They share a glass of wine. They talk politely about their current lovers, their regrets, their grandchildren. Beneath the politeness and the sophisticated sarcasm, a genuine sense of resentment and affection rises to the surface, and later, in her hard reflection in the mirror and his aging profile shuffling down the street alone, a sense of loss as well. Ms. Rowlands, who shows 100 emotions in one curdled expression, is the real deal—one of the bona fide treasures of the silver screen. She wrote the screenplay for her episode, which is sensitively directed by her friend Gérard Depardieu and in itself worth the price of admission.

Some of the episodes are of only minimal interest, others are self-indulgent, and many of them have nothing to do with Paris at all, causing the film to lose focus. Things work best when the great city becomes the proscenium for experiences that seem doubly meaningful because they happen there, like the one by Joel and Ethan Coen. Set in the Tuileries metro station, it shows an American tourist (Steve Buscemi) who becomes unwisely interested in a couple making out across the platform. One thing leads to another, until the couple are both shouting obscenities at the bewildered innocent, the girl makes sexual advances, her boyfriend beats him up, and our visitor learns a hard lesson in why you should never stare at strangers in the subway. Come to think of it, this one, as the Coen Brothers know only too well, could just as well be set in New York. You can’t blame the frogs for everything.