21 directors focus in on City of Light

Posted: May 25, 2007

As love songs to cities go, Paris, Je T'Aime is a little flat. A compendium of 18 shorts by 21 directors (a few working in tandem), with episodes set in different quarters of the City of Light, this innately rambling affair has its moments, and visitors who've wandered France's capital - and fantasized about living there - will find things to enjoy.

But mimes, please! And vampires, give me a break!

Yes, "Tour Eiffel," from The Triplets of Belleville's Sylvain Chomet, offers an unabashed - and unironic - piece of wordless Gallic gesticulation, about a monsieur and mademoiselle mime who meet cute - in jail. How do you mime stabbing yourself in the eyeballs with a fork, because that's what watching this inspires one to do.

And in "Quartier La Madeleine," Frodo-boy Elijah Wood plays a guy smitten, and then bitten, by a Ukrainian beauty (Olga Kurylenko). At night on a city stairway, he steps into a puddle of blood, looks up and sees the sultry vampiress. Vincenzo Natali, a Canadian steeped in sci-fi and fantasy, directed the segment - which is neither scary, nor amusing, nor erotic.

Thematically, several episodes are linked. Loneliness and isolation are big (a man looking for a parking space in "Montmartre"; an American postal worker dining alone in "14eme Arrondissement," another American tourist waiting for the metro in "Tuileries").

There is also much fainting and falling down: a woman collapsing beside a parked car (the aforementioned "Montmartre"); a Muslim girl tripping on a pathway by the Seine ("Quais de Seine"); Juliette Binoche, as a mother whose son has died, crumbling on the cobblestones ("Place des Victoires"), and a Lagos street singer knifed in a plaza, then tended to by a inexperienced EMS worker ("Places des Fetes").

Paris: the city of tricky footing.

It's easy to see the appeal of the project from the perspective of its participants - an international crowd that includes directors Alexander Payne, Richard LaGravenese, Wes Craven, and les freres Coen, and actors Natalie Portman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Marianne Faithfull, Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands (together, as a divorcing couple). Come to Paris for a week and we'll put you up in nice digs, give you a film crew and a little tale to tell. But the tales are exceedingly little, and some of the filmmaking just messy.

What was the ├╝ber-talented Alfonso Cuaron thinking when he shot "Parc Monceau," a small joke about a middle-aged Yank (Nick Nolte) and his encounter with a young French woman (Ludivine Sagnier)? The actors, shot from across the street and in the dark, are unrecognizable, and the overdubbed dialogue sounds like it was phoned in six months after the fact.

And "Pere-Lachaise," featuring Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell as engaged Brits visiting the tomb of Oscar Wilde, is literary sap - especially surprising coming from the hand of horrormeister Craven.

The best pieces here are about the racial and cultural divide that's rending Paris, and Europe. Touching on the wave of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment prevalent in many quarters, "Quais de Seine" offers a love-at-first-sight story of a Muslim girl and the French boy who follows her to her mosque. "Loin du 16eme," with Maria Full of Grace's Catalina Sandino Mereno, tracks a young immigrant mother as she commutes from her stark suburban digs to tend to the infant of a wealthy Parisienne.

It is possible to bring substance, as well as poetry, to the vignette form, but more often Paris, Je T'Aime is merely mundane.

Paris, Je T'Aime **1/2 (Out of four stars)

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Alfonso Cuaron, Isabel Coixet, Wes Craven and various artists, written by various artists, photography by various artists, distributed by First Look Pictures. With Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi, Marianne Faithfull, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Ludivine Sagnier, Elija Wood and others. In English, and in French with subtitles.

Running time: 2 hours

Parent's guide: R (profanity, drugs, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

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