Thursday, November 26, 2009

Film review: 'Paris' a gripping mediation on darkness, not light

Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris in Paris.

By John Thomason

Reading the cliché-riddled description of Paris on the Website of the Lake Worth Playhouse, where the film opens Friday, you may want to roll your eyes.

This “valentine to the city of lights” is a “cinematic love letter to a city that seems to hide a story behind every shop window, small alley, street market or grand apartment building … the film explores the life and love possible only in Paris.”

Oh, please. You’d think you were entering the Paris of An American in Paris, all brightly colored cafes and picturesque strolls down the Champs-Elysées, nobody working and everybody happy. Paris is a much deeper movie than the idyllic travelogue this synopsis is apparently trying to sell.

Writer-director Cedric Klapisch’s (L’auberge espagnole) Paris is less like watching love burst forth from every corner market and apartment complex than it is about the lack of love; less a celebration of life than a meditation on death. Because in French cinema, nothing brings an estranged family together like impending death. Last year it was Catherine Deneuve in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale; this year it’s Romain Duris as Pierre, a man waiting on a heart transplant to save his life. He uses the crisis to reconnect with his sister Elise (Juliette Binoche), a romantically frustrated social worker and single mother who looks about half her age.

Pierre uses his ailment to sulk, self-reflect and dig through his past (a call to a grade-school sweetheart leads to a tortured vomiting session), but mostly he spies on his neighbors, Rear Window-style, whose individual stories expand a multi-character mosaic.

There’s Roland (Fabrice Luchini), a professor and historian who deals with the trauma of his father’s recent death by anonymously texting bawdy Baudelaire poems to an attractive student; his brother Philippe (Francois Cluzet), an architect whose “perfect” life may be upset by the stress of his first child’s arrival; and a group of fishmongers at a local market dealing with their own romantic foibles. Everything is glued together by ping-pong editing that intercuts dual scenarios, urging us to draw our own connections.

Klapisch presents his flawed characters without judging them, lest the film run the risk of devolving into a redemptive morality tale. There are moments in Paris that are wildly off-base, like the juvenile, psychobabble dream sequence in which the happy cartoons from Pierre’s 3D renderings begin to complain about his designs, and a giant baby shows up at his worksite – if only his personal life was as perfectly calibrated as his buildings!

But mostly, Paris is a remarkable study of existential angst, with Death striking one character at random as another waits for his inevitable visit. It’s a film not without its lightness – Binoche’s clumsy striptease to a one-night-stand is an endearing and defining moment for her character – but its humor is most literally of the gallows variety.

Paris may be a multifaceted city of more than 2 million eclectic stories, and indeed many of them are the kind of shallow valentines to which the film’s synopsis alludes. But if that’s what you’re looking for, you might as well see Paris je’ taime instead.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

PARIS. Director: Cedric Klapisch; Distributor: IFC; Cast: Juliette Binoche, Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Albert Dupontel, François Cluzet, Karin Viard, Gilles Lellouche; in French with English subtitles; Opens: Friday; Venue: Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake Ave.

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