Ah, the omnibus film; few genres generate such mediocrity. For every rare success like Spirits of the Dead or Dead of Night, there are a dozen lackluster hodgepodges like Lumiere and Company, Eros, and Aria. And yet, the assemblage of name directors and casts always inspires hope. Paris je t’aime certainly looks astonishing on paper. Olivier Assayas, the Coen brothers, Alexander Payne, Tom Tykwer, and Gus Van Sant are just a few of the internationally renowned directors contributing to the 18 short stories that make up Paris je t’aime. Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi, Gerard Depardieu, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Nick Nolte are just the tip of the star power on display. While too fleeting in grace to be a great movie, Paris je t’aime does however reward the hope offered with this prestigious cast and crew.
The satisfactions and disappointments don’t always come from the expected places though. Germany’s Oliver Schmitz, who has worked mostly in television and is practically unknown outside of his home country, pulls off one of the better segments with “Place des Fêtes” (each short story is named after a Paris neighborhood). A poor parking garage janitor (Seydou Boro) who has immigrated from Lagos has been stabbed and has a chance encounter with a beautiful medic (Aïssa Maïga) whom he had once met before fleetingly. Schmitz sustains a lyrical, moving tone until an unfortunately weak ending.
Walter Salles’ work has its fans but has been mostly bland and underwhelming. He and his frequent collaborator Daniela Thomas contribute another immigrant’s story. “Loin du 16ème” follows Ana (Catalina Sandino Moreno) during her long, crowded daily commute. Salles and Thomas quietly evoke the conditions of the working class and more specifically addresses the irony of how nannies must leave their own children to take care of the children of the better off.
A third immigrant story is by Gurinder Chadha (Bride & Prejudice). Three boys sit on a sidewalk just off the Seine making rude overtures to Paris’ ample supply of beautiful female passerby. The only quiet boy goes to help a young Muslim girl after she trips. “Quais de Seine” isn’t much, but is notable for a sense of compassion that runs through many other segments in the film.
There are few directors more promising today than Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men), but he makes the most trivial and banal segment of the bunch. Cuarón’s “Parc Monceau,” starring Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier, is essentially one long camera take as well as one long pointless misdirection in audience manipulation. Only a few are worse. Bruno Podalydés’ “Montmartre” stars himself as a lonely jerk hording a parking space. Sylvain Chomet’s “Tour Eiffel” answers the question, what is a movie about the French without mimes: a much better movie. Then there is Vincenzo Natali’s “Quartier de la Madeleine,” about an unsuspecting young man (Elijah Wood) bumping into a vampire (Olga Kurylenko) in the middle of the night. Natali desaturizes the picture to near black and white and does generate some eerie imagery, but the whole segment is just too silly for words.
Surprisingly Wes Craven’s entry has nothing to do with horror, although it is set in a cemetery. Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer give strong performances playing a bickering couple soon to be married in Craven’s romantic comedy. Alexander Payne, who directs a different segment, shows up in a cameo as the ghost of Oscar Wilde. Payne’s “14ème arrondissement” is also about a tourist, a middle-aged letter carrier from Denver touring Paris. In intentionally horrid French, she describes the city from an often-unsophisticated outsider’s perspective, but she incidentally happens to paint a vivid picture of her own life in the process. Payne shows why the French hate American tourists, but also shows why they shouldn’t.
Not surprisingly, some of the best episodes are the funny ones. Joel and Ethan Coen’s slapstick “Tuileries” is the funniest of the bunch. Steve Buscemi plays his usual onscreen persona, the hapless maladroit, and as usual, he can elicit instant sympathy and get the laughs. He’s like a less dexterous Buster Keaton in that way. Isabel Coixet’s manages to make a comedy about terminal illness. Sergio Castellitto is a cheating husband until he discovers his wife is dying of cancer. Coixet’s “Bastille” has a number of in-jokes for the astute cinephile, hilariously referencing Bela Tarr, and featuring some of Spain’s major talents like Javier Cámara and Leonor Watling in cameos. Frédéric Auburtin and Gérard Depardieu’s “Quartier Latin” also makes a nod to cineastes in casting two veteran John Cassavetes actors – Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara. The two play a world-weary couple about to divorce, but their amiable repartee lends the proceedings a touch of the bittersweet.
Averaging six-and-half minutes a segment, some directors use certain devices to make the most of their time. Coixet and Payne use voice-overs to convey a great deal of information quickly while Tom Tykwer utilizes time lapse photography in dilating seasons into seconds. The hardest genre to get right in so short a time is drama and Nobuhiro Suwa’s “Place des Victoires,” about a mother after the death of her child, has nowhere to go. It’s saved only by Juliette Binoche giving perhaps the best performance in the whole movie.
Many filmmakers adhere to familiar tropes in their work. Tykwer’s style is reminiscent of his Run Lola Run. Coixet’s story, like her My Life Without Me, is about terminal illness. Assayas’ “Quartier des Enfants Rouges” stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a foreign actress in Paris for a French production, evoking a different Maggie, his ex-wife Maggie Cheung, in Assayas’ Irma Vep. Assayas’ party scenes here also recall his L’Eau froide. As is his wont, Gus Van Sant indulges in the imagery of idealized youth in the form of two stunningly gorgeous men. After lensing in Asia all these years, Chris Doyle naturally tackles a story set in Paris’ Chinatown.
Paris je t’aime isn’t quite as uneven as most omnibus films. Examinations of varying degrees of compassion accumulate through many of the stories until it infects the film as a whole. With episodes about couples engaged, married, or about-to-be-divorced, about relationships about to begin or that could have been, Paris je t’aime movingly weaves a quilt of optimistic humanism.