Monday, November 2, 2009

Paris and New York, I Love You

By Elise Nakhnikian

Ever since Méliès took his trip to the moon more than 100 years ago, there’s been a market for magic carpet movies – films whose main purpose is to transport us to a faraway place. But now that we’re well into the second century of the moving picture, it takes more than a few lightly sketched characters against a picturesque background to hold our interest.

Paris, a pleasant fictional travelogue now showing on the IFC In Theaters channel on cable TV, is the French version of a minor Woody Allen movie, with Paris standing in for Manhattan: A feast of luscious eye candy and finely calibrated performances, it goes down easy, though it doesn’t have much nutritional value.

Writer/director Cédric Klapisch and cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne make the city look so good you don’t just want to live there; you want to roll around in it, like a horse in clover. The background keeps becoming the focal point, as rows of yellow-leafed trees or urban vistas viewed from on high upstage the low-key drama simmering in the foreground.

The filmmakers like to make the background pop by blurring it, using shallow depth of field to set their actors against impressionistic canvases of color and light, which are almost always brightened with a splash of red. That effect is particularly dazzling when they shoot the Eiffel Tower at night, the soft focus making its lights vibrate until it dances, like a living thing coated with diamonds.

Every now and then the drama in Paris heats up enough to distract us from the scenery, thanks to electrically alive performances by Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris. Duris plays Pierre, a dancer whose terminal heart condition has kept him virtually captive for the past few weeks. Holed up in his cosily charming Parisian apartment, he watches his neighbors and daydreams about their lives, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. Binoche is Pierre’s sister Elise, who moves into his apartment to take care of him until he can have the surgery that will either cure or kill him.

His illness has turned Pierre into a walking Seize the Day billboard, but Duris gives him a gentle intensity that makes the cliché work, even as Pierre urges family and friends to relish the good fortune of not just being alive, but living in the City of Light. Besides, it’s such a pleasure to watch Binoche’s hesitant Elise let down her guard and unleash a tsunami of warmth and joie de vivre that you don’t want to quibble about what made it happen.

Klapisch wants to give us a panoramic view of Paris through his story as well as his lens, so he crams the script with intersecting stories. But these generally fizzle out before they ever really get started, leaving us emotionally stranded. Some characters are barely on screen long enough to register as individuals, like a would-be Parisian from Cameroon who dies trying to emigrate illegally. Others – like a professor who falls for a student young enough to be his granddaughter – play out their thinly developed stories long enough to wear out their welcome.

In the end, you don’t really care about anything but Pierre, Elise, and the idealized city they love – and you don’t know them well enough to care very deeply. But they make good company for a couple of hours, and sometimes that’s all you want from a movie.

New York, I Love You makes Paris look profound. Like Paris, it spins several intersecting narratives at once, but this time there’s no core story to hold our interest. Instead, about a dozen directors each tell a separate and equally unengaging squiblet.

It sounds like a gimmick – and it is. This is part of a planned series of similar films set in different cities. The first one was Paris, je t’aime, which had some genuinely engaging segments though it still failed to gel into a compelling whole. This one is about as compelling as one of those circus performers who keep a bunch of plates spinning at once.

So slight they register more as notions than as narratives, the stories are cut into pieces that are interspersed with each other or reflected in even shorter transitions, an superficial attempt to create synergy that just makes them seem all the more artificial.

Only rarely do we get the feel of a real New York moment, like when Chris Cooper, playing an American businessman, surprises a Chinese drycleaner and his customer by greeting them in Cantonese after they’ve used it to joke around behind his back. The writers and directors, who are almost all from somewhere else, tend to set their stories in iconic places (cabs, Central Park, Chinatown, more cabs, Coney Island, again with Central Park …) instead of exploring less familiar parts of the city. The views are mostly unimaginative too, and the interactions are generally stagey and unconvincing, whether Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman are fighting cute as a long-married couple in Brighton Beach or Julie Christie is having an incomprehensible encounter with a crippled bellhop overplayed by Shia LaBoeuf.

New York, I Love You is a magic carpet movie with no magic. It wastes an almost criminal amount of talent, but the real shame is how it reduces the grit, grandeur, and greatness of New York to an insipid formula.

1 comment:

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