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Film

18 Directors Go To Paris

By Phil Nugent
Published May 24, 2007

The anthology film Paris, Je T’aime offers 18 takes on the subject of love in the city of lights, from the Coen brothers, Alexander Payne, Sylvain Chomet, and others.

Paris, Je T’aime is a fairly representative example of the all-star multi-director omnibus feature, a kind of movie that has a long and varied history in Europe but has never had much of a presence in American theaters outside of the occasional novelty release. (Remember the Quentin Tarantino-orchestrated Four Rooms? Just so you know, the correct answer to that question would be, “Nope,” though “God, yes—argghh, my eyes!” is also acceptable.) What gives these anthology films their enduring appeal—besides the chance that maybe, just maybe, one of the directors will catch fire and serve up something as amazing as the wild, 50-second science-fiction nightmare that David Lynch stuck into the 1995 Lumiere And Company—is the chance to watch a lot of famous, talented people seeing what they can do with a linking theme and jockeying for bragging rights.

Paris, Je T'aime consists of 18 segments, each filmed in a different district of Paris and each dealing with the theme of love in the city of lights. The directors include Olivier Assayas, Joel and Ethan Cohen, Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron, Gerard Depardieu, Christopher Doyle, Richard LaGravenese, Alexander Payne, Walter Salles, Tom Tykwer, and Gus Van Sant, and among the actors featured are Fanny Ardant, Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi, Sergio Castellitto, Ben Gazzara, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Emily Mortimer, Nick Nolte, Natalie Portman, Miranda Richardson, Gena Rowlands, Ludivine Sagnier, Barbet Schroeder, Rufus Sewell, and Elijah Wood and his latest unfortunate haircut. With so many segments crowded into a movie that clocks in at a little less than two hours, it’s no surprise that many of the stories end up feeling underdeveloped. Episodes crowded near the start of the picture are moderately engaging but stop just as things seem about to get moving. As Lynch demonstrated in the Lumiere project, a short running time isn’t necessarily a barrier to creating something memorable and fully realized if the filmmaker thinks in terms of indelibly strong images and focuses hard. Not everyone can do that on cue, of course, and some of the segments here barely amount to the director clearing his or her throat.

The major virtue of having such an overcrowded field is a negative one: at least the really bad films aren’t on long enough to put you to sleep or drive you to violence. Speaking of violence, Wes Craven’s segment, a stroll through the famous Pere Lachaise cemetary that includes a cameo appearance by Alexander Payne as the ghost of Oscar Wilde, consists mostly of a stilted dialogue between two lovers (Mortimer and Sewell) that proves once again that, however much he might want to stretch, the director of A Nightmare On Elm Street shouldn't be allowed to work without a crazed maniac with a carving knife. In fact, the longer the segment drags on, the more a crazed maniac with a carving knife starts to seem welcome, even necessary.

For his part, Sylvain Chomet, director of the great animated feature The Triplets Of Belleville, provides serious evidence that he should never be allowed to direct live action. His contribution is a chunk of steaming whimsy about the courtship of a pair of white-faced mimes. It seems to want to kid the revulsion that all right-thinking people express towards mimes, but it doesn’t mock that revulsion half as well as it justifies it. Maybe the worst episode, directed by Nobuhiro Suwa, stars Binoche as a grieving mother who is comforted in her moment of need by a mythic American cowboy who appears as a nocturnal vision, clomping his horse down the deserted street. As bad as it sounds, what makes it really insane is that the cowboy is played by Willem Dafoe. Probably only a Japanese film director working in France could see ol’ Bobby Peru as a logical stand-in for John Wayne.

Other segments try to knock your eyes out with visual flash or gently break your he