Short and sweet love letters from Paris
"Paris, Je T'Aime" is what they call an omnibus movie: one long film comprised of 18 very short ones. But it's probably more useful to think of this spotty collection as the findings of a class trip: 21 directors loosed on the city's arrondissements to film whatever felicity comes to mind.
What they deliver is long on stories of visiting Brits and Americans -- not just from American filmmakers like Alexander Payne and the Coen brothers , but from Gérard Depardieu (directing with Frédéric Auburtin ). The young Canadian Vincenzo Natali even gives us Elijah Wood as a backpacker who's bit by a vampire. Not all the episodes are that inspired, though.
The collection begins with "Montmartre ," a sugary love story from Bruno Podalydès in which he stars as a lonely guy who falls in love with the woman who passes out next to his parked car. That's it. Most of the films are that succinct. Gus Van Sant's is set in the Marais , Paris's gay district, where Gaspard Ulliel -- the Hannibal of "Hannibal Rising " -- comes on to the silent apprentice (Elias McConnell ) at a print shop. After his punch line, Van Sant comes up with a final series of shots that are illogical but sweet.
Any mention of France's recent socio-political strains are muted here. Where's the romance in, say, worker benefits? The clumsy short from Gurinder Chadha , the woman who brought us "Bend It Like Beckham," further explains the lack of politics: it's hard to put across in two or three minutes. In Chadha's film, boy (Cyril Descours ) meets girl (Leila Bekhti ), the girl is Muslim and the boy is not. But he is a student of history, which makes her father psyched. This is as ham-fisted as her features, and the least of the group.
Walter Salles , working with Daniela Thomas , films Catalina Sandino Moreno , playing a nanny in "Far From the 16th." She drops off her own baby, endures an epic metro- and bus-ride to take care of someone else's. In about three scenes and one song, the directors achieve the pointed eloquence that eludes a lot of so-called humanists.
That same streak of empathy runs through "Place des Fetes " from the South African director Oliver Schmitz , who uses brevity to moving effect. The story keeps pulling back to reveal what a dying immigrant (Seydou Boro ) from Lagos was doing to end up in the arms of a pretty paramedic (Aissa Maiga ). Schmitz conveys the tragic irony of the last days of the man's life in a great montage, bested only by Tom Tykwer's piece ("Faubourg Saint-Denis "). The "Run Lola Run" director manages to present an entire relationship (between Natalie Portman and Melchior Beslon ) as a pulsing, swelling blur.
Portman plays a struggling American actor, and there's a preference for shorts about moviemaking throughout "Paris Je T'Aime ." It's beside the point in Olivier Assayas's haunting installment ("Quartier des Enfants Rouges "), in which Maggie Gyllenhaal , playing an American actor who looks like Kirsten Dunst , falls in love with her drug dealer. It's an indulgence in Richard LaGravenese's "Pigalle ," with Fanny Ardant and Bob Hoskins as a couple of performers with a stale marriage.
As you might expect, each little film faithfully represents its maker. The Coens' contribution is an inane farce (Steve Buscemi under attack waiting for the metro). The Wong Kar-Wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle sets his baroque little number at a Chinese hair salon. And Sylvain Chomet , the animator and director of "The Triplets of Belleville ," gives us a live-action cartoon starring two mimes -- I know what you're thinking, but it's very funny.
Unpredictably enough, Wes Craven offers a tribute to Oscar Wilde and a woman's prerogative to marry for laughs.
Payne's piece (written with Nadine Eid ) is the best of the lot. It comes last and it's deceptively simple. A tourist from Denver (Margo Martindale ) reads in amusing phonetic American English from the report she wrote for her French class, while we see scenes of her wandering around the city in tennis shoes and a fannypack. Martindale is intrepid and heartbreaking (in a few minutes no less), and Payne's balance of spite and warmth is consistent, almost graceful. As an ad for the city's charms, Paris couldn't have asked for a more sweetly jaundiced love letter.