Film Review: PARIS (NY Times)

September 18, 2009
A Sick Man Embracing a City’s Life, Just as His Own Is Threatened

In “Paris,” Cédric Klapisch’s sumptuous Gallic comedy, the camera, whether surveying the landmarks from on high or peering out of an apartment window at the passing parade, becomes a surrogate for a first-time visitor to the City of Light. Both a Parisian answer to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” and a multicharacter mosaic in the mode of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” the movie sprawls invitingly across the screen like a glowing Impressionist painting. Instead of George Gershwin, Erik Satie supplies the signature music.

But “Paris” is much lighter fare than either “Manhattan” or “Short Cuts.” The film glosses the psyches of its likable characters. Even when tragedy strikes, its outlook remains buoyant. People die, but life bubbles on.

Although the movie makes gestures toward being a top-to-bottom examination of Paris’s social fabric, its perspective is solidly middle class. There are no aristocrats or financiers, nor is there mention of the slums on the city’s fringes or reference to any brewing social upheaval.

North African immigration is acknowledged with a couple of fleeting characters in the cinematic equivalent of little daubs of paint at the corners of the canvas. The movie visits Cameroon just long enough to suggest one source of illegal immigration. Its working-class Parisians — several of them fruit and vegetable sellers — are stereotypically earthy and appealingly rough around the edges, especially when it comes to sex.

Much of the drama swirls around Pierre (Romain Duris), a dancer at the Moulin Rouge, and his older sister, Elise (Juliette Binoche), a divorced social worker, who moves in with him, along with her three children, after he learns that he has a possibly fatal heart ailment. As Pierre awaits a heart transplant, his hyper-awareness of the people teeming on the streets below his apartment lend the movie the bittersweet viewpoint of a condemned man who suddenly realizes the preciousness of life. At one point he observes that the Parisians bustling around him don’t know how lucky they are.

Pierre is a sharp departure from Xavier, the footloose student Mr. Duris played in Mr. Klapisch’s earlier films, “L’Auberge Espagnole” and its sequel, “Russian Dolls.” While languishing, Pierre telephones a woman on whom he had an adolescent crush and recollects their first slow dance. But beyond his illness, his blips of nostalgia and his attachment to his sister, Pierre remains a blank.

Elise, who takes time off from work to care for her brother, is so devoted that she goes girlfriend-hunting on his behalf. She too is lonely. Her most revealing speech is a familiar reflection about the fading romantic chances of a woman who has turned 40. Ms. Binoche imbues the almost saintly Elise with her usual air of wistfully radiant compassion.

The most developed subplot follows the romantic misadventures of Roland Verneuil (Fabrice Luchini), a history professor who becomes so besotted with Laetitia (Mélanie Laurent), a beautiful young student, that he sends her anonymous text messages, some in contemporary cyberspeak (“U R awesome. I’m 2 hot 4 U”) and others quoting the feverish love poetry of Baudelaire. Mr. Luchini’s performance provides “Paris” most of its comic juice, especially in a scene in which he amuses Laetitia by ludicrously shaking his booty to Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances.”

Roland’s academic specialty is the history of Paris. His late midlife crisis informs the movie’s perspective about the past and the present, and how the two must be balanced with an eye to the future. Suddenly terrified of becoming “an old fossil,” he agrees to host a television series about the city’s history but has a panic attack during a taping.

In one episode his quotations from Baudelaire about Paris being an ouvrage (a work of art) “without heads or tails” also describe the film’s aesthetic of fragmentation, in which a whole consists of many scattered pieces.

Roland has a tense, distant relationship with his younger brother, Philippe (François Cluzet), a successful, married architect and expectant father whom Roland resents for being the more normal of the two. But Philippe also has his demons, which strut forth in an animated architectural nightmare.

There are enough intersecting characters from different classes and backgrounds in “Paris” to evoke the city as a complex, healthy organism, whose parts are all connected. If it is too lighthearted to show the actual political and economic machinery behind it, its celebration of how well that machinery works produces a pleasant afterglow.


Written and directed by Cédric Klapisch; director of photography, Christophe Beaucarne; edited by Francine Sandberg; music by Loïk Dury; set designer, Marie Cheminal; produced by Bruno Levy; released by IFC Films. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Juliette Binoche (Elise), Romain Duris (Pierre), Fabrice Luchini (Roland Verneuil), Albert Dupontel (Jean), Mélanie Laurent (Laetitia) and François Cluzet (Philippe Verneuil).

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