This bittersweet valentine to Paris, with love and squalor, is composed of 18 vignettes, each with a different director and set in another of the city's vividly diverse quartiers. As is always the case with compilation films, some segments are far better than others. But they're all so brief that the least of them passes quickly and the best are small miracles of economical storytelling.
It opens with Bruno Podalydes' trifling Montmartre, in which a compulsive navel-gazer (Podalydes) finds the possibility of love while looking for a parking space, and ends with Alexander Paynes' sour 14th Arrondissement, a condescending vignette in which a plump, lonely, middle-aged American postal carrier (Margo Martindale) discovers the city's poignant beauty. In between, an international cross-section of filmmakers as various as the Coen brothers, Olivier Assayas, Christopher Doyle and Wes Craven train their lenses on neighborhoods rich and poor, and Parisians of every color and national origin. The resulting mosaic is occasionally silly, frequently slight and rarely dull.
In Gurinder Chadha's Quais de Seine, a French-born boy (Cyril Descours) discovers that he has more in common with a Muslim girl (Leila Bekhti) than with his noisy, obnoxious friends. The divide of language almost derails the flirtation between two young men (Elias McConnell, Gaspard Ulliel) in Gus Van Sant's Le Marais, while Joel and Ethan Coen's jokey Tuileries subjects an American tourist (Steve Buscemi) meekly awaiting his train in the Metro to the cruel head games of a local couple (Julie Bataille, Axel Kiener). Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas' Loin du 16eme delicately sketches the everyday travails of a Latin American nanny (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who leaves her own baby in daycare so she can care for a wealthy couple's infant. Christopher Doyle's Porte de Choisy plays knowingly with the tropes of Orientalism as it opens a larky window onto Paris' Asian immigrant community, and Isabel Coixet's masterful Bastille condenses a couple's (Sergio Castellitto, Miranda Richardson) marriage, near breakup and bittersweet reconciliation into the months between his decision to decamp with his lover (Leonor Watling) and the twist of fate that makes him stay. Nobuhiro Suwa's Place des Victoires filters a mother's (Juliette Binoche) choking grief through her dead child's cowboy fantasies, and Sylvain Chomet's intensely annoying Tour Eiffel tries vainly to find whimsical charm in the courtship of mimes (Paul Putner, Yolande Moreau).
Both Parc Monceau and Pigalle appear to be about one thing when they're actually about something else entirely; in the former, Alfonso Cuaron eavesdrops on the conversation between an older man (Nick Nolte) and a pretty young woman (Ludivine Sagnier), while in the latter, Richard LaGravanese chronicles the erotically charged encounter between a middle-aged man (Bob Hoskins) on the prowl and an aging barfly (Fanny Ardant). Quartier des Enfants Rouges, directed by Olivier Assayas, revolves around an American actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her dealer (Lionel Dray). Oliver Schmitz's melancholy Place des Fetes parses the disparate fortunes of two African immigrants (Aissa Maiga, Seydou Boro). Horror specialists Vincenzo Natali and Wes Craven contribute Quartier de la Madeleine, a ravishing but slight black-and-white fantasy daubed with red, red blood in which a gorgeous vampire (Olga Kurylenko) crosses paths with an eager victim (Elijah Wood). Meanwhile, Pere-Lachaise finds a bickering couple (Emily Mortimer, Rufus Sewell) resolving their differences with a little help from the ghost of Oscar Wilde as they explore the world's most famous city of the dead. Another couple — a blind man (Melchior Beslon) and an actress (Natalie Portman) — fall in and out of love in Tom Tykwer's Faubourg Saint-Denis and an older couple (Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands) meet for a civilized chat about their impending divorce in Gerard Depardieu and Frederic Auburtin's touching Quartier Latin.
Life in Paris, it appears, is like a plate of petits fours: You never know what you'll get, but it will always look ravishing. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh