“Paris, Je t’aime” and the Question of Essence
January 31, 2008
Paris, Je t’aime is an odd assortment of excellent short films, enjoyable short films, terrible short films, and a wonderful exemplar of both the vocative case and solastalgia. There isn’t much margin for error in a short film, and segments in Paris, Je t’aime are examples of the myriad things that can go wrong: poor execution of a good idea (Vampires in Paris, which fails to capture the innate sensuality and eroticism of both), good execution of terrible ideas (the one with the beauty supply salesman and the Asian beauty salon, that no matter how well filmed can’t escape its ludicrous plot), and overreliance on symbolism (the Willem Dafoe cowboy picture). Others suffer because they better resemble short prose forms, which do not require narrative, than short stories. These segments, while interesting in their own right and often beautifully conceived, seem incomplete. Though I’m not a student of the genre, I would be surprised if segments like the first, wherein a man meets a woman and they go for a ride in his car, would succeed in short film competitions. These films do not stand on their own as much as they contribute to the overall aesthetics of disjuncture and elegiac romanticism.
The best of the pieces are those by Gus Van Sant, the Coen Brothers, Tom Tykwer, and Alexander Payne. In each of the films, the director has distilled the essence of their filmmaking technique into 2-10 minutes. The languid cinematography in the Van Sant segment recalls his earlier films (especially Elephant) and touches upon many of his recurring themes (homoeroticism); the Coen Brothers’ segment is rife with black humour and sudden, random violence started by miscommunication and incomprehension, plus the appearance of Steve Buscemi; and Tykwer’s short film, like his breakout Run, Lola, Run is an exhilarating look at the ways modern filmmaking techniques (quick cuts, superfast montage, repetition) can serve story.
Payne’s film about a postal worker who visits Paris is the movie’s highlight. Like Election and About Schmidt, the movie explores the equally mundane, depressing, yet somehow fulfilling life of a solitary midwesterner. As in Schmidt, Payne realizes the full potential of voiceover as a mode of developing character. Our postal worker’s (excellent) rough French reveals her innermost thoughts, sometimes belying the images, sometimes working synergistically to come to a greater conclusion. At the same time, the piece shows Payne’s tremendous post-Schmidt growth. There’s no-longer any need to resort to the cheap laugh of absurd situations. Payne is now fully capable of realizing characters so rich that he can allow them to speak to him, he can let them be themselves, and the rest will take care of itself. His segment is the essence of his filmmaking, and the movie his career has been building up to. It’s no wonder Paris, je t’aime ends after Payne’s segment; after all, where can you go after you’ve realized the short film genre?