Movie review: "Paris"

This intimate film weaves multiple plots of ordinary lives and loves.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Arthur Dujardin, Marie Drion and Iris Grillet (l. to r.) as Élise's children, and Juliette Binoche as Élise in "Paris," directed by Cédric Klapisch.
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The new film "Paris" by writer-director Cédric Klapisch was originally supposed to carry the subtitle "An Ephemeral Portrait of an Eternal City." That kind of sums it up, but not necessarily in the ways Klapisch intended. He probably thinks ephemeral is synonymous with poetic, but sometimes, to paraphrase Freud on cigars, ephemeral is just ephemeral.

Klapisch, who scored an art house hit with "L'Auberge Espagnole," once wrote a master's thesis on Woody Allen, and "Paris" has certain affinities with Allen's work, especially, of course, "Manhattan." But it's also a nod to the crisscrossing panoramas of Robert Altman, although "Paris" is definitely Altman Lite.

Pierre (Romain Duris) is a cabaret dancer who discovers that only a heart transplant can possibly save his life. His social worker sister Élise (Juliette Binoche) is enlisted to care for him in the run-up to the operation. Single, with three children in tow, she alternates between being a calming influence and an irritant.

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The nice thing about multiplot movies is that, if one narrative doesn't work for you, there's always another. Don't like the heart transplant story line? How about the one about the respectable professor, Roland (Fabrice Luchini), who falls for a gorgeous student, Laetitia (Mélanie Laurent)? Or the Cameroonian worker (Zinedine Soualem) who attempts a dangerous boat crossing into France? Or the local vegetable market employee (Albert Dupontel) who works uneasily beside his flirty ex-wife (Julie Ferrier)?

To some extent, all these stories, and many others, intertwine, although not always naturally. Klapisch might have been better off making one of those episodic movies divided up into self-contained chapters. But one can see what he's getting at here: Paris is a sprawling metropolis that is also, at the same time, très intime. If you are out and about long enough, sooner or later you'll connect up with everybody.

This is the sort of poetic conceit that doesn't always work as a real-world one. The Paris of "Paris" isn't especially well observed. Klapisch shows off the usual landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre's Sacré-Coeur basilica, and so forth – but the effect is picture-postcardish. (This may nevertheless be enough to satisfy recession-strapped viewers unable to visit the real thing.) So much of the action takes place indoors, or on nondescript streets, that the Eternal City at times seems no more than a backdrop. Ephemeral indeed.

Although it's the hokiest of the narratives, the heart transplant scenario is the most compelling because Duris and Binoche are such compelling actors. I've never been a big admirer of Binoche when she's playing high-toned women of mystery (as in "The English Patient," for which she won the Oscar), but when she's down to earth, as in "The Flight of the Red Balloon" or this film, she's incandescently human. Duris, who has starred in numerous Klapisch movies, is perhaps best known as the pianist-gangster in "The Beat That My Heart Skipped." (Duris, or his agent, seems to have a cardiological fixation.) He has an intensity here that carries you through the vagaries of his role, including the many times Pierre is required to gaze longingly from his balcony at the city below. To make matters even more banal, Klapisch layers melancholic Satie music over his longing looks, just in case we didn't get the drift.

The December-May story line is entertaining only because Luchini is such a deft performer. Addled by Laetitia's prettiness, he begins his courtship by text messaging her anonymously, inadvertently raising her ire. But this is Paris, after all, and l'amour trumps all. His finest moonstruck moment comes when he tries to dance like a teenager for her. It is in such moments that "Paris" transforms the ephemeral into the eternal. When it comes to being a fool for love, there are no city limits. Grade: B. Rated R for language and some sexual references.

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