How's this for a French fete: 18 short films by 20 international filmmakers, all set in the City of Lights (and Love, of course), and all together lasting just two hours. That's less than seven minutes per rendezvous -- ample time for myriad little epiphanies and amusements.
Think of Paris, je t'aime as a few days in the life of a city that forever pricks the imagination, assembled by some artists who are mostly smart enough not to overreach. (Only Kafka can write a paragraph that equals a novel.) The settings of the pieces whirl around the city, often connecting so seamlessly that you can't be sure when one ends and another begins. (Fortunately, they tell us).
Themes emerge -- loneliness, cultural misunderstanding, immigrant dreams, the real and the imagined, amour fou -- and some recur, like echoes. The best pieces in Paris, je t'aime ("Paris, I love you") feel particular to both the filmmaker and the city, rather than just to the former. It's all more charming than anything else, and of course, Paris explodes around it: The film literally opens with the Eiffel Tower aglow and fireworks illuminating the night sky.
Isabel Coixet, who is Spanish, creates a lovely poem to all things New Wave: A woman hums "Le Tourbillion" (from Truffaut's Jules and Jim) after getting bad news from a doctor (Agnes Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7), and her husband, rather than dumping her (pick your Godard), rededicates himself to loving her, never to love again after she dies (back to Truffaut).
In Gurinder Chadha's "Quais de Seine," two young bucks sit by the river taunting the girls who walk by. Their third friend is silent. When a Moslem girl trips, he helps her up -- then secretly follows her to mosque and waits outside. She emerges with her grandfather, and the lad is crestfallen. But this is not the Old Country.
For dark comic relief, the Coen brothers put an American tourist (Steve Buscemi) in a Metro station, where he reads from an ancient guidebook that warns him, among other things, not to make eye contact with the natives. Across the tracks, he can't help regarding a young woman making out with her boyfriend, and soon every American tourister's nightmare about the French comes true.
Gus Van Sant's moody piece finds a young French artist believing he's found his soul mate in an apprentice at a printing shop. He talks to the fellow, who nods and says "oui" a few times. But he's American and doesn't understand French, and the artist doesn't know this. It ends with a chase, a soundtrack, and the director's requisite question mark.
Less satisfying are the pieces that try too hard to say too much. Walter Salles, the Brazilian director, contemplates the servant and the served through the life of a young mother, who leaves her own beloved infant each morning to care for the child of her employer. In Christopher Doyle's weird squib, a hair-products salesman (Barbet Schroeder) arrives at a surreal salon for Asian women, where he's promptly kung-fu'd out the door by its high-heeled mistress. He returns and, with his products, he transforms the women into golden-haired China dolls.
Nobuhiro Suwa's mini-tragedy concerns a mother (Juliette Binoche) who can't overcome the loss of her young son, whose spirit beckons her to come outside in the middle of the night, where a cowboy (Willem Dafoe) helps her come to terms with her loss. Binoche is beautifully lachrymose, as always, but the piece could take place anywhere.
Alfonso Cuaron's piece plays like a clandestine May-December romance (Nick Nolte is December) with a punch line. Olivier Assayas introduces us to a drugged-up American actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who flirts with her dealer. Richard LaGravenese walks the Pigalle, Paris' red-light district, for a clichéd tale about a longtime couple (Bob Hoskins, Fanny Ardant) trying to rekindle their pilot lights. Vincenzo Natali first embraces and then sends up the vampire genre, with help from a sanguinary Elijah Wood.
Four big names bring up the collection's derriere. Wes Craven's playful ghost story takes a British couple on a stroll through a Parisian cemetery, where the terribly unromantic man gets good advice from Oscar Wilde (Alexander Payne). That leads to Tom Tykwer's kinetic contemplation about why a blind boy should never fall in love with a self-absorbed American actress (Natalie Portman). Then Gena Rowlands (ageless) and Ben Gazzara (semi-comatose) meet to discuss their divorce and take a few final bites out of each other. Their sparring feels equal at first, but as always, the older woman loses. (Rowlands wrote the piece, and Gerard Depardieu co-directs).
Finally, Payne directs his own vignette, about a frumpy middle-aged Denver letter-carrier (character actress Margo Martindale) on her dream vacation in Paris. She narrates in heavily accented French, like a junior-high pupil telling us what she did on her summer vacation. It's funny and sad, but also cruel in a way that only Payne can be. I think he means her awkward insight at the end to be a joke, although the film itself seems to take her homage to Paris seriously.
The program's Grand Prix goes to Oliver Schmitz's bittersweet contemplation of immigrant lives: She's an EMT, and he's an itinerant laborer from Nigeria whom she tends as he lies dying on the street. They'd met earlier, exchanged glances, then went their separate ways in a city that promises as much defeat as it does success.
But the Palme d'Or belongs to Sylvain Chomet's "Tour Eiffel," about a boy who tells the story of how his parents -- both mimes -- meet in jail and fall in love. The parents re-enact the tale, in flashback and full mime makeup, replete with imaginary cat (now that's French). It's funny and whimsical, a story you could imagine telling only in Paris, and it reminds us that what most people say they want in their lover is a sense of humor. In French, with subtitles.