This is a film that is worth seeing once, twice, some of the stories even thrice. It is an experimental movie, 18 shorts, a collaboration between 22 internationally renowned filmmakers and many, many actors from many different countries. The theme is love, and that is the only common factor. Apart from the city of Paris, whose different sections take a bow in different sections. With only minutes to tell their story, it is interesting to see how dialogue, action and music come together to paint a vivid tale. The stories are a mixed bag, but not one of them is ‘bad’. They are all consistently good, though some transcend that adjective to become truly great cinema.
It makes no sense to 'review' all 18 segments. And it’s almost impossible to talk about them without spoilers. Keep in mind that each ‘story’ is only about five minutes long. So I’m posting the short films, not in the order in which they appear in the film, but in the order that I liked them, with a short synopsis of what they were about.
1. Place des fêtes (XIXe arrondissement / Oliver Schmitz): My favourite short in this film is also its most tragic, and it’s all the more tragic because of its sheer pointlessness. A young Nigerian man is stabbed and as the young and beautiful paramedic treats him, he recalls when he had first seen her and how he had fallen in love with her. I defy anyone to watch this segment without feeling sad.
2. Place des Victories (IIe arrondissement / Nobuhior Suwa) A touching story of a mother (Juliette Binoche) whose grief over her son’s death is destroying her family. As she begins to hear his voice calling to her, she gets a final chance to say goodbye. Another touching segment on love and loss.
3. Les Marais (IVe arrondissement / Gus Van Sant) A young man (Gaspard Ulliel) comes into an art shop with his patron. He finds himself attracted to a young shop worker; and after a long conversation, leaves the latter with his phone number. What he doesn’t know is the twist in the sweet tale.
4. Monmartre (XVIIIe arrondissement / Bruno Podalydès) A young man (Podalydès) makes his way down a crowded Paris street, finally parking (in the notoriously hard-to-find city parking) and pondering on his outwardly successful life and the inexplicable loneliness of his life.
5. Quais de Sienne (Ve arrondissement / Gurinder Chadha) A trio of young men sit on the banks of the Sienne ogling women and passing comments. A young Muslim woman sitting nearby overhears; on her way past them, she trips and falls. One of the young men run to help her; and they strike an unusual friendship, discovering some simple truths in the process.
6. Tour Eiffel (VIIe arrondissement / Sylvain Chomet) A very sweet, humorous story told by a child about how his parents met. In jail. As the rest of the story is narrated in mime, you cannot help smiling.
7. Tuileries (Ier arrondissement / Coen Brothers) A tourist (Steve Buscemi) is waiting for his train in the nearly-deserted Tuileries metro station. Even as he is reading his guide book, he breaks one of the carved-in-stone rules of using the Paris metro system, and becomes (inadvertently) involved in the affairs of a couple on the opposite platform.
8. Loin du 16e (XVIe arrondissement / Walter Salles / Daniela Thomas) A beautiful and touching story of a young Spanish immigrant (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who has to leave her baby in daycare before she goes to her job as a nanny.
9. Bastille (XIIe arronddissement / Isabel Coixet) Sergio (Sergio Castellitto) is waiting in a restaurant for his wife, and reflecting on her little quirks, and how he is going to tell her ‘between entree and dessert’ that he is leaving her for his hot, airhostess mistress. But when she comes in, she is in tears, and he is afraid that she already knows what he is going to say.
10. Pere Lachaise (XXe arrondissement / Wes Craven) An absolutely delightful segment about an engaged couple who are honeymooning before their marriage. She (Emily Mortimer) is an Oscar Wilde fan; he (Rufus Sewell) is the corporate type. When she finally breaks up with him at Oscar Wilde’s grave, he gets some help in winning her back from an unexpected source. Absolutely brilliant!
11. Faubourg Saint-Denis (Xe arrondissement / Tom Tykwer) A blind youth picks up the phone only to hear his girlfriend (Natalie Portman) break up with him, or so he thinks. As he cuts the call abruptly, he remembers how he met her, how their friendship grew into love, and how their relationship declined. And then, he gets another call. This is a fantastic segment as the blind man takes you on a running tour of the cobbled streets of Paris. Simply lovely.
12. 14e arrondissement (XIVe arrondissement / Alexander Payne) An American woman (Margo Martindale) narrates her Paris experiences to her French class. So, in classic textbook French, she talks about how her perceptions changed as she visited France alone. Her accent is atrocious, her French is rudimentary, very literally translated from the English but she is truly and honestly earnest in her appreciation of what the trip taught her.
13. Quartier Latin (VIe arrondissement / Gerard Depardieu / Frederic Auburtin) An older couple (Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara) meet up in a bar for a final goodbye; as they share a drink, their genuine friendliness comes to the fore. And as the drinks arrive, we realise that their divorce is nearly official.
Okay. These are the ones I absolutely loved. The next three are so-so; not great, but not bad, either.
14. Pigalle (IXe arrondissement / Richard LaGravenese) An old couple (Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant) visit a bordello to put that spark back in their marriage. Ho-hum.
15. Parc Monceau (XVIIe arrondissement / Alfonso Cuaron) An old man (Nick Nolte) is hurrying to meet a young woman. As they talk, it appears that they are a bit worried about how ‘Gaspard’ will take to him. The revelation of who Gaspard is seemed a bit contrived (to me).
16. Quartier des Enfants Rouges (IIIe arrondissement / Olivier Assayas) When an American actress (Maggie Gyllenhall) picks up some really strong pot from a local drug dealer (Lionel Dray), her crush on him leads her to call him ostensibly for some more of the drug. Will he come? This was a segment that fizzled out at the end leaving you wondering, ‘Uh, what?’
17. Porte de Choisy (XIIIe arrondissement / Christopher Doyle) Okay, I’ll freely admit that I have no idea what happened in this segment. Absolutely no idea what was meant; whether there was a deeper meaning to what was portrayed. For what it’s worth, a shampoo salesman arrives in the Chinese quarter of the city, and is almost run off. Only, the salon owner calls him back again. (Why? Don’t ask me!)
18. Quartier de la Madeleine (VIIIe arrondissement / Vincenzo Natali) This is the segment that I hated. I found it entirely pointless, and I hope the director meant it as a farce because I found myself giggling at what was supposed to be a deeply touching moment. A young tourist (Elijah Wood) comes across a deeply disturbing scene as he climbs the overbridge. Only, he doesn’t realise how it would all end. (Neither did I.)
The film is unapologetically multi-lingual, and it leaves one questioning as the film ends; it’s one of the most polarising viewing experiences I have experienced – one either loves the film, or hates it. It is also a film that not only needs, but absolutely insists on multiple viewings – so one can make some sense of the divergent story lines.
Originally meant to feature each of Paris’ twenty sections or arrondissements, two of the shorts were dropped because they could not be suitably integrated into the whole movie. With some beautiful shots of the city (see below) beginning and ending each narrative, and the music weaving subtly through the stories, it was less a movie and more of an experience.
Following this film's unprecedented success, another film with the same structure, focusing on life and love in New York was released in 2009. This was a collection of 11 short films with the same premise. Unfortunately, it received average ratings.