Stop me if you've seen this one already: a singly titled film picturing multiple intersecting stories starring an acclaimed cast of talents. No, it's not a political thriller a la Traffic (2000) or Syriana (2005), and it isn't set in Los Angeles, like Magnolia (1999) or Crash (2004). And it's not Wonderland (1999 and 2003). The film in question is Paris, director Cedric Klapisch's melancholic tableau of Parisian lives.
The film focuses on the high-rise surveillance of housebound former dancer Pierre (Romain Duris), who awaits a heart transplant while visually tailing the people below. This generous cross-section of humanity includes a shrewish bakery owner (Karin Viard), lecherous professor Roland (Fabrice Luchini), whose infatuation with student Laetitia (Melanie Laurent) is mildly returned, and Elise (Juliette Binoche), Pierre's social-worker sister who moves in--with her three children--to care for him during his convalescence. Although these characters differ in economic and social status, Klapisch (who also wrote the screenplay) examines the minute connections that tie together the bustling humanity of this major metropolis.
Although ostensibly a cinematic love letter to the titular city, Paris is a shoddy sort of valentine, one smeared with glue stains and edged in tattered lace. While the film contains an abundance of familiar, picturesque locations--sometimes intrusively inserted--and doesn't have the hard-hitting punch of many similarly structured films, it isn't an unblemished ode. These are real Parisians, their joys and annoyances, break-ups and make-ups elevating the film above an unabashed travelogue. Its recurrently ramshackle quality is partially explained in Pierre's final discourse on the French disposition. "No one's ever happy. We grumble," he muses. "We love that."
Like the curmudgeonly attitudes of the characters, Klapisch's lens seems drawn to the less-than-perfect parts of Paris: an overflowing garbage bin, a meat market's cold storage. But he transforms this ugliness into something human and beautiful, moments of emotional elevation in the midst of bottom-floor conditions. He's a clever director, opposing esoteric CGI dream sequences with wide-angle cityscapes and larkish dance numbers. Although clocking in at more than two hours, the inventive editing and poppy soundtrack keep the pace moving.
It's sometimes difficult to view variegated works such as Paris without feeling a bit cheated. Certain characters and story lines, unless balanced very carefully against the rest, feel truncated, spurious or unnecessary. Pierre's story is genuinely the heart of the film, but the overlong treatment of Roland's mid-life crisis sours in the last 40 minutes. Binoche gives excellent support but leaves the film dimmer when she is off-screen. Duris--who ironically starred in a film entitled The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)--is a great talent, while Laurent, the striking surprise of Inglourious Basterds (2009), gives a mature, insinuatingly charming performance. With a few over-expressive moments and an occasionally buffoonish story line, only Luchini's character felt extraneous, while many of the smaller subplots deserved further treatment.
The currently in-vogue vein of multi-plot movies has brought forth a mixed bag of results. In the case of Paris, we're introduced to many fine French actors and treated to a pleasant reminder of human kinship. Conversely, we're left discontented by the simplicity of the "we're all connected" message and the unresolved story lines. These elaborately interwoven tales are more gimmick than genre. As with any clever conceit, it's good once or twice, but grows old quickly.