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    City of slights

    "Paris" is an ensemble film about Parisians — as irritating as they may be inviting — that starts out scattered but ends up profound.


    We'll always have Paris — the city of lights, romance and cinematic love letters. What we rarely have is "Paris."

    Written and directed by: Cédric Klapisch.
    Cast: Juliette Binoche, Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Albert Dupontel, François Cluzet, Karin Viard, Gilles Lellouche, Mélanie Laurent, Zinedine Soualem, Julie Ferrier, Olivia Bonamy, Maurice Bénichou, Annelise Hesme, Audrey Marnay.
    Cinematography: Christophe Beaucarne.
    Edited by: Francine Sandberg.
    In French with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    IFC Center
    323 Sixth Ave.
    (212) 924-7771

    This is no whirlwind fairy tale where every eye twinkles and every life is touched by magic. It is about Parisians, plain and simple, brusk and quotidian.

    This is the kind of movie that constantly reminds you of other things, and it's tempting to write as much about the city as about the film. Honestly, in real life, it took me three tries to fall in love with Paris. The first Paris I ever saw was confounding, miserably hot, and people seemed to be mocking me and my attempt at French. In a place I expected to be the hometown of intellectualism and fine wine, what I most remember was an old drunkard stumbling around a shop and screaming, "I"m going to break your face!" at the shopkeeper for not selling him any more booze. Welcome to the capital of civilization.

    The characters in "Paris," like the characters in Paris, are flesh and blood and at least as irritating as they may be lovable. It's hard to identify what you might call a plot — it's more of an Altman-style skein of minimally connected individuals experiencing a few months of life in their city. They occasionally intersect, or just cross paths in the night, but they aren't tied together obsessively. It's a loose weave.

    Among the many more or less flitting characters, the most central are Pierre (Romain Duris) and his sister Elise (Juliette Binoche). A failing heart has confined Pierre to his apartment while he awaits a possible transplant. His Paris is no glittering center of glamour — it's merely a view from a balcony, untouchable and aloof. By all appearances, the city has finished with him and moved on. "I garden," he tells Elise. "Mostly I look out the window. I watch other people live."

    How do other people live? They work, they bicker, they meet their friends in cafs, they leave other friends outside looking in. They endure, they die. To break up the daily grind, they flirt and go to bed, and rather than seeming licentious the sex seems simply like the single bright spot in a lot of merely tolerable lives. The film should win some kind of award for least explicit plus most sexy movie of the year. Binoche herself has a little striptease scene that's so flat-out nice you want to take her in your arms when it's done, less out of lust than out of good cheer.

    (Juliette Binoche, I was thinking afterwards, is way more appealing in her 40s than she was in her icier and waifier 20s. My companion noted that French actresses age naturally better than American ones do with extensive work done.)

    There is not much more to tell about the subject of the movie — it consists of microstories that illustrate, if only in bits and pieces, the fabric of a people. It starts out disconnected and only mildly interesting. Certain threads seem much less essential than others, and I wonder whether it could have been a stronger story with fewer diversions — less ensemble and more focus. But it ends up, to my mind, deeply moving. A party near the end is joyous amid pain; a cab ride after that is a wordless crescendo of beauty and anguish. There is much to feel and much to love.

    One of the microstories — almost the tiniest, and different from the rest in that it takes place in Africa — is about a Cameroonian who gets postcards from his emigrant brother and dreams of going to work in Paris himself. He gets as far as the North African coast, only to fail in his first attempt to reach the promised land of Europe aboard a fragile, overcrowded boat.

    "We'll try again tomorrow," his guide assures him.

    "Is it worth it?" he asks. Only, in the actual French idiom, what he literally asks is this: "Is it worth the pain?"

    The guide answers: "The sad thing is, it really is worth the pain."

    That, in one sentence, is what this movie has been all about.

    SEPTEMBER 20, 2009

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