Beginning with vistas of Paris at dawn as a pa-rum-pum-pah samba song shimmies on the soundtrack, Paris Je T'Aime times its opening credits so that the title comes up as the Eiffel Tower is showered with a cascade of fireworks and the strings kick in during the music. It's a fair warning: If you want sociology or cultural critique, go somewhere else, friend. Featuring 18 segments by 18 separate directors, Paris Je T'Aime isn't just a boon to any film writer who gets paid by the word; it's also a charming document of each director's love affair with Paris. And, like a real love affair, it's not afraid to look at complexities and compromises, to tackle tough challenges in the hope of reaping great rewards.
Perhaps the nicest thing about Paris Je T'Aime is how the 2-hour running time means that each director has to work on the run; and, if you don't like a segment, you simply have to wait a short while for something else to come along. Many films offer us a feast; Paris Je T'Aime is more like a tasting menu, with a series of chefs -- some known, some not -- offering a small serving of romance or comedy or pathos or all three and then clearing the way for another cook. Every segment revolves around love -- but love, of course, is not always happy. And there is some sociology afoot in Paris Je T'Aime -- whether it's Catalina Sandino Moreno's portrait of a working-class nanny or glimpses of the interactions and negotiations that make up Parisian life. Each segment is named for a neighborhood or landmark in Paris, and there are standout segments: The opening segment "Monmartre," by writer-director-star Bruno Podalydes, begins as a man's negotiation with the parking battlefields of France throws him into a contemplative reverie about his life and fate -- interrupted by a woman (Florence Mueller) who collapses in the street next to his car. Podalydes has a nice sense of comedic timing as an actor and director, and the segment sets the tone for the stories of urban love and urban life that follow. Gurinder Chadha manages to combine a story of youthful flirtatiousness with an examination of one of France's most controversial social issues -- the wearing of the hijab by Muslim immigrants and their children -- and uses it to look at peace, love and understanding with real charm and grace.
Wes Craven steps away from his usual scary-film style to show two quarrelling lovers (Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer) in a famed Paris Cemetery, and one of Craven's fellow directors makes an unexpectedly deft cameo as famous dead resident Oscar Wilde. Alexander Payne demonstrates that the capacity for sympathy and humanity he honed in Sideways was no fluke with a vignette about an American woman (Margo Martindale) traveling in Paris; it seems to condescend at first, but then you're left touched by just how real and sincere Payne's segment really is. And the Coen Brothers give us some of their loosest, funniest, most assured work in years with a wordless, hapless Steve Buscemi playing another tourist who has a misadventure on the underground.
There are other vignettes, but with everyone from Isabel Coixet to Christopher Doyle, Tom Tykwer to Gerard Depardieu offering a small slice of love and life in Paris, there's a little something here for every film fan. Paris Je T'Aime may be small and slight (and already embroiled in a lawsuit between two of it's producers), but it's a lovely, romantic treat whose episodic, ephemeral nature doesn't detract from its exuberant, elegant charm.