The Hero’s Journey in “Paris Je T’Aime”

Paris, the world-renowned city of love. Paris, Je T’Aime brings together 18 short films by a host of international directors who offer their reflections on passion and romance, as felt in the hearts of different generations, races and genders.

Think of a portrait of the Eiffel Tower, the grid of numerous Parisian districts, and the stretches upon stretches of ambient-lit streets in the City of Love — all painted atop a colorful marble slab in a beautifully arranged image. Now, picture the tablet after being shattered, rendering each little nugget as a uniquely colorful element of Paris. Then, imagine all these little pieces glued back together into the exact same image, only arranged in a diverse manner with different patterns, color choices, and insights into each corner and shape of the city. That’s Paris Je T’aime, a truly unique mosaic film assembled and directed by eighteen splendid one-or-two man director teams.

Unlike other vignette-driven works that share like themes or interlaced characters, this collection of short films — each one a stanza within a grand love poem composed for the City of Love — have very little in common outside of the architecture in their backdrops. That’s what makes the experience unique, though; Paris Je T’aime doesn’t even try to unify style, even when it interconnects each little segment with a scenic shot of the focal district’s architecture, congested and beautiful as it may be. Instead, it allows for individual imprints, ones that can be striking familiar to anyone with experience with the directors. Watching Gus Van Sant’s communication-based rendezvous short felt like watching a Van Sant picture, void of any kinds of filters or controls to keep it uniform with the rest of the film’s canvas. No matter which director we’re talking about, they all still find a common thread even amid their efforts at individualism: an understanding of the Parisian essence, and a grasp on the multifaceted natures of love — all coming together in something close to a photojournalist essay on the city’s kinetic emotionality.

Ah, l’amour. you can smell it in the air, along with freshly baked croissants and uncorked vin rouge, every time you walk down the streets of Paris… or so the tourist ads tell us. But Paris’ faith in itself as the city of love is more than just a selling-point for weekend breaks. It is somehow bound up in the spirit of the place. When Paris comes to the movies — in Amélie, Moulin Rouge!, Before Sunset, À Bout De Souffle, Subway and even The Aristocats — the heart always rules the head.

Each of the five-minute meditations that form this cinematic love letter to Paris approaches its subject from a different angle, using a different district of the city as its starting point. Where else would Gus Van Sant set a gay encounter but in Le Marais? Why would Bob Hoskins search anywhere other than the neon porn shops of Pigalle to spice up his relationship with Fanny Ardant? And yet the city’s most recognisable tourist attractions aren’t central to the stories — they’re relegated to background glimpses or postcard-pretty shots which act as buffers between the individual shorts. The love theme concentrates on people rather than places.

The various casts and crews are as internationally diverse as the multi-ethnic city they are depicting. Also, unlike regular three-or-four-section portmanteau movies, there’s enough variation in tone to hold the audience’s attention over a two-hour period. The frivolity of a mime artist in love sits next to the heartache of a mother who lost a child. Just when it seems a bit talky, along come the Coen brothers with a touch of comedy, as Steve Buscemi becomes the unwitting man-in-the-middle of a lovers’ tiff in the Tuileries métro station. Christopher Doyle’s glide through the Asian beauty salons of Porte de Choisy and Vincenzo Natali’s hyper-real vampire tale in Quartier De La Madeleine (starring an easily seduced Elijah Wood) are weak in terms of narrative but add a visual beauty to the whole.

If there’s a drawback to the 18-segment structure, it’s that it risks yanking the audience out of a story just as it gets going. Fortunately, the cumulative effect of the piece is strong enough to overcome any stumbles. Indeed, a handful of these films don’t require a single additional frame. In Loin Du 16ème, Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas follow a young immigrant (Catalina Sandino Moreno) as she leaves her baby behind in the scruffy suburbs to cross the city and work as a nanny for a faceless career woman. Urban geography and social class are bridged by a simple lullaby.

Quartier Latin, meanwhile, is a masterclass in undemonstrative acting by Cassavetes veterans Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara, who play an elderly, soon-to-divorce couple discussing their younger lovers. Although directed by Gérard Depardieu and Frédéric Auburtin, this short’s plaudits belong to Rowlands as screenwriter, as she compresses entire lives into a few brief lines of dialogue. It sits comfortably in the penultimate slot, its reflective mood drawing a succession of slices of life towards closure. Inevitably some of these segments are more rewarding than others, but the film as a whole is more than the sum of its parts.