In the 18 short films of Paris, Je T’Aime there are three kinds of love. There is the love of the city. There is the love of love itself. And, above all, there is the love of film. This is not expressed in self reference or clever call outs, but in a delight of creation that simply pours off the screen. It’s an earnest, almost naive kind of love, that is usually only found in student films. And, just like a good student film, every short is unrestrained, simple, and very, very quirky.
The setup for the compilation is simple. Paris has 20 arrondissements, each of which gets a short. Two didn’t fit in, which brings the total to 18. The order in which they appear is like a good walk through the city: more or less random, and constantly ending up in unexpected places. At the start of every short, there is a notification of where we are this time and who directed the shorts. Lovers of the city will squeak as their favorite places pass by, and lovers of film will squeak multiple times as the directors are presented. The Coen Brothers are present, as are Wes Craven, Tom Tykwer, Alfonso Cuarón, Gus van Sant and many more.
Even though they find themselves on novel turf, most directors who aren’t native to the city go with their known routine. The Coens shove Steve Buscemi around a bit, Tykwer time lapses his way through a relationship and Van Sant makes two improbably attractive young men spark. Others mix things up a little more: Cuarón goes almost four minutes without being bleak and Sylvain Chomet (of Les Triplettes de Belleville and L’illusioniste fame) makes a live-action short about two mimes that’s weird even for him. The big surprise, however, comes from horror alumnus Wes Craven, who delivers a funny little short about a lover finding inspiration. That it takes place on a graveyard is probably just out of habit.
Although the title might suggest lots of dreamy glances with the Eiffel Tower in the back, the directors mostly avoid the tired view of Paris as the city of love. Like the capitol of any large country, Paris is first and foremost a city where people live, and the directors encapsulate their stories with candor and insight. Which is not too say they’re not romantic: the majority of the shorts features a couple, and most of them end up happily. What makes them work is that all of them get in enough trouble to make the wrap-up a genuine relief. It’s a bitter but pure kind of romanticism, and one that makes for an excellent date movie.
But besides from being atmospheric and delightful, there seemed to have been the attempt at making a portrait of a city, in which regard the film doesn’t hold up quite as well. The greatest insight of the movie, that a city is essentially just a collection of random stories, is also its greatest weakness, since things never seem to lead up to anything. And, unavoidably for any such project, the lesser pieces lower the overall quality of the project.
On the bright side, this almost never happens. The shorts are consistently good and some are even excellent. There is only one real miss (a bewildering piece of concept by Christopher Doyle), which for a film such as this is almost unheard of. Paris might not be the city the guidebooks tell you it is, but it seems to posses a subtle magic that has made the contributors deliver things that never fail to be interesting. Even a love story between two vampires is surprisingly endearing. For those who know the city only from the images the movies have given us, Paris, Je T’Aime might be a bit of a shocker in terms of its not-always-idyllic atmosphere, but those who know the city will find a lot to love about both the city and the film itself.