"Why, oh, why do I love Paris?"



Film The tourist experience of Paris is unlike anywhere else. It is an intimidating place, especially for a lingually challenged dolt like me and there is so much going on it's difficult to focus and you're inevitably not going to see all of the things you’d want to. But it’s also a dream-like, intoxicating place and the emotions you experience as you stroll along its long boulevards, through its ancient buildings and attempt to get service in its restaurants is like nowhere else. It can also be depressing, particularly if like me you've visited alone, and there isn’t anyone with whom you can share the romance (except, perhaps, total strangers).

I’ve yet to see a film which entirely captures the experience of an outsider visiting the place that manages to highlight the magic with the tragic but the new anthology film Paris J’Taime comes very close, particularly in the segment by Alexander Payne about a woman who visits the city alone but still somehow manages to fall in love with the place despite that. Payne’s section of the film manages to combine some of the funniest material with the saddest as she notices that you can both love and hate the city in equal measure. Best moment? When she says in the voice over that asking for directions gives her a chance to try out her French, only to be answered in perfect English by the Parisian shop keeper -- something which has happened to us all probably.

Anthology films are tricky to design because any linking theme can either free up or be a millstone to directors and writers. In this case it’s a mix of the two and the seventeen segments that appear before Payne quietly steals the show are a mixed bag and it’s certainly true that the very best are those which address the cultural concerns of the city rather simply presenting a story that could happen anywhere. Vincenzo Natali’s contribution in which Elijah Wood has an encounter with a vampire, whilst creepy, could have occurred in any city, whereas the film from Coen brothers in which a silent Steve Buscemi falls foul of the language barrier and someone’s fist on the Paris Metro seems as though it could only happen in Paris.

That isn’t always true and if you’re not a fan of French mimes Sylvain Chomet’s intrusion with its story of how two met and began a family is going to look like a waste of its inspiration, the Eiffel Tower (each of the segments is set in a different arrondissement of Paris). Similarly Christopher Doyle’s surreal fantasy about a traveling hairdresser, looks like the one of those films that introduces an Olympic opening ceremony or the French entry to the Eurovision song contest. But such things are more than made up for by the likes of the tale from Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas starring Catalina Sandino Moreno (from Maria, Full of Grace) which cleanly demonstrates the gap between the immigrant population of the city.

But it's to the credit of producer Emmanuel Benbihy that the film never feels empty and indeed there are segments where you wish a director had been given more screen time or would go back and continue the story begun. Gurinder Chadha’s ‘Quais de Seine’ is probably her best film, a cross cultural romance with more real heart than the whole of her Bride & Prejudice. Tom Tykwer‘s ‘Faubourg Saint-Denis‘ too is a masterpiece, a love story between the blind Melchior Beslon and movie actress Natalie Portman told in flashback employing a return to the rapid editing and shooting style of his Run, Lola, Run. But in the main each director manages to say everything they want to in the time limit, with Alfonso CuarĂ³n’s ‘Parc Monceau’ playing out in a single shot as Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier walk and talk and cleverly, in the end you have re-evaluate everything you’ve heard.

If there’s a problem, because the directors appear to have been given a freehand, their only pediment being the running time and the arrondissement it’s obvious that Benbihy has had to assemble the pieces retrospectively hoping that they'll all tonally fall into place. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work, partly because of a middle section in which most of the segments seem to end melancholically but mostly because, despite short buffers introducing each area there isn’t enough time for the audience to refocus ready for the next treat and in some cases that means that they’re not giving the new film enough attention because the previous one is still in the mind. That’s a hazard all anthology films have to deal with, but it’s particularly acute here because of the brevity of the works and the sheer number of them. But you can’t fault the ambition and Paris J’Taime is never less than touching, funny and surprising.

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