More still than the city of love, Paris is the city of cliché.
By comparison to Paris, even London is pretty safe for avoiding cinematic vulgarity. Just stay away from Big Ben and 'droll' Englishmen reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes or – worse – Mr. Bean and you'll be fine. A film depicting an average London neighbourhood might lack in style, but avoids the pitfalls of universally recognisable kitsch. But then, who outside England knows about Stoke Newington or even Camden Town?
Try shooting a film about Paris, by contrast, and your troubles increase exponentially. The universally shared image of Parisian life is stunning people walking down a picturesque street, or sitting in an atmospheric cafe. Problem is: Most actors are stunning and streets in Paris unfailingly are rather pretty. Even the city's cafes all eerily resemble the Platonic form of the atmospheric Parisian cafe any filmgoer will have in mind.
No escape from received ideas, then, for a film forebodingly called Paris, je t'aime. A succession of 18 short films, each was realised by a different famous director and with a different star-studded cast. Billed as a film about love in Paris and a love declaration to Paris, Paris, je t'aime, in truth, unwittingly becomes a cinematographic ritornello revolving around cliché.
As each director uses his few minutes of screen time to decide whether his contribution will indulge in cliché, play with cliché or attempt to transcend cliché, a cacophony of styles hits the viewer. This, however, is not the problem. After all, coherence is overrated. If each director chose a different approach, and they each added another little stone to a colourful mosaic of Paris, the result would be glaring, yet beautiful. The problem, on the contrary, is that for all their incoherence, the 18 shorts making up Paris, je t'aime are disappointingly repetitive.
Gus van Sant's short about the "Marais" is a good example of the recipe most of them share. First, feebly attempt to transcend cliché by making your film really 'stylish'. The easy way to achieve this is to show some minority or subculture – in this case, gays. Second, you have them act a little weird, lending your film that certain art house feel... For example, you could ask the male lead (Gaspard Ulliel) to rant, egotistically, about his deep connection with another character (Elias McConnell) who, being American, doesn't even understand a word of what's going on.
Last, you reward yourself for your attempt to sidestep banality with a little indulgence. Have the good American discover his love for the enigmatic soliloquist, rushing out into the street to track him down and start a beautiful love story. This, incidentally, has the added advantage of being able to show, in the last frames of the short, all the quaint sights any tourist hopes to spot in the "Marais": Some more gays, a couple of orthodox Jews, and the sickeningly pretty Place des Vosges.
Even though some shorts at least go so far as being mildly self-ironic, the 'different perspective' on Paris they all self-consciously seek rarely goes very far. "Quartier Latin", directed by no other than Gérard Depardieu, for example, depicts Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara in a Parisian café. Far from romantic, however, their rendez-vous – twist! twist! – on closer inspection turns out to be an awkward reunion on the eve of their divorce.
The secrets which emerge as Rowlands and Gazzara enlist all their psychological weaponry and charme against each other are mildly entertaining. But the short's ambition to shock by showing how cruelly lovers can wage war on one another could not have been called innovative even back in 1962 – when Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, of which "Quarter Latin" is evidently derivative, triumphed on Broadway …
As Paris, je t'aime progresses, the catalogue of failed shots at originality becomes longer and longer. In "Père Lachaise", directed by Wes Craven, Emily Mortimer is having second thoughts about her engagement to Rufus Sewell. It takes an unbearable guest appearance by Oscar Wilde (Alexander Payne) to save their relationship – poor Oscar is wheeled in to teach the overly earnest Sewell how to have a good laugh, rescuing Mortimer from "a life devoid of humour".
Only Joel and Ethan Cohen, in "Tuileries", manage to attain any degree of virtuosity in deconstructing commonplaces about Paris in an entertaining manner. Steve Buscemi, playing another American tourist – a mid-sized battalion of them populates the film, probably quite enough to stop genocide in Darfur if only they weren't loitering around in the streets of Paris – reads his guide book in the "Tuileries" metro station. It tells him that Paris is the city of love and, true to the promise, there they are, two French lovers on the opposite platform, in a tight embrace.
"Eye contact should be avoided", the guide book warns him; a little too late, for he has just caught the eye of the striking girl (Julie Bataille), and attracted the consequent wrath of her lover (Axel Kiener). What follows is a dizzying succession of surprises. The Cohen brothers switch realism on and off – as unpredictably, one imagines, as the ebbs and flows of Buscemi's testosterone whilst he goes from being gratuitously attacked by Alex Kiener to being gratuitously snogged by Julie Bataille.
When, surrounded by hundreds of Mona Lisa postcards, Buscemi is finally left alone on the platform, we, along with him, are a little bewildered: A sustained tour de force of Paris could have been breathtaking after all…
Perhaps the many flaws of Paris, je t'aime just are the flaws of modern-day Paris. Crushed by all the beauty it hopes to preserve and all the tourists it hopes to attract, Paris can be a stifling place to live. In London, historic monuments are the reassuringly constant background to rapidly changing life. Paris, by contrast, can feel like individuals are the worryingly ephemeral extras for a never-changing protagonist, la France.
Paris, therefore, is much more than a pretty setting to live in: it is an ever-competitive primadonna. Living in Paris, you have only two options: take the back seat, enjoy the beauty of the primadonna bestowing her presence on you, and give up hope of ever doing anything with your life. Or fight the city, with all the energy and every dirty trick you have at your disposal. Perhaps that's why Parisians – just like the shorts making up Paris, je t'aime – can seem so earnest and self-obsessed behind their ironic veneer. Don't blame them: they're weighed down by an uphill struggle…
So, of course, is Paris, je t'aime. For the film to succeed, eighteen directors would have needed to overcome the pitfalls inherent in telling a love story about Paris. A few worthwhile shorts, such as the Cohen brothers' "Tuileries" or Walter Selles' and Daniela Thomas' "Loin du 16e" thankfully show that these obstacles could have been overcome. One or two out of eighteen, however, sadly is not enough for a good, or even just entertaining, full-length film.