Having just come off the Tribeca film festival, I should be perfectly attuned to an experimental short film anthology like Paris Je T'Aime, (Paris, I Love You) and some segments of it are definitely enjoyable, but the overall hit-miss ratio is too low to ignore. This, despite a juggernaut talent bench that includes the Coen brothers, Wes Craven, Natalie Portman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Alfonso Cuaron, Nick Nolte, Miranda Richardson, Bob Hoskins, Elijah Wood, Steve Buscemi, Gus Van Sant and Juliette Binoche. In fact, these are only a few of the notable performers and directors who contribute to the 18 shorts, only a few of which actually intersect with the others. My favorite of the lot is the one that the Times' Stephen Holden declared to be the worst: a snappy little love note to Parisian vampires titled Quartier de la Madeleine. Starring Olga Kurylenko as a classic vampire with opaque, milky eyes who is interrupted in the midst of her work by Elijah Wood, it's a beautifully photographed little love story with lots of blood that seems made of melted pink plastic.
Strangely enough, that's not the short directed by Craven (even though he makes a cameo in it -- how could he not?) Craven's entry is Pere-Lachaise, focusing on a visit to that famous cemetery -- where Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust and Jim Morrison are buried -- by a squabbling couple played by Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer. Just when Sewell's character has run out of things to say, the ghost of Wilde actually shows up to give him some advice. Like many of the films, however, it feels like a 30-minute short that was cut down to about one-third of that time in order to squeeze it into this crowded phone-booth of a feature format. If you don't pay careful attention, you might actually miss Wilde's appearance and wonder what happened to wrap up the segment. Still, the acting drags it over the finish line. The same can be said for Quartier des Enfants Rouges, starring Gyllenhaal as an American actress shooting a costume drama in Paris and possibly falling for her Parisian dope dealer.
One segment that fits well into the short format and is noticeably well directed is Faubourg Saint-Denis, from Run, Lola Run director Tom Tykwer. Here, the clock is rewound on a Parisian fling between a blind student played by Melchior Beslon and a young, high-strung actress played by Portman. The good and bad highlights of the relationship are re-run in Beslon's head in a matter of seconds -- it's a visually arresting little honeycomb of memories. Some may also appreciate Tulieries, a straight comedy piece from the Coens starring Buscemi as an American tourist who does exactly what the tourist guidebook tells him not to do -- make eye contact with someone in the subway. This gets him into a spot of trouble with a couple of locals. For my money, there are a couple of genuinely funny moments near the end of this one, but overall its a tame and somewhat uneventful short, considering that there must have been no restraints on what the filmmakers could do or where they could go in their allotted minutes.
Spanish director Isabel Coixet contributes the mildly interesting Bastille, in which a husband played by Sergio Castellitto has to abandon his plan to ask his wife for a divorce when she announces out of the blue that she's been diagnosed with terminal leukemia. The wife is played with verve by Richardson, but there's so little story to hang the whole thing on that at times it comes across as an acting exercise. The same problem exists in Quartier Latin, another short focusing on a couple growing apart, starring Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands. Directed by Gerard Depardieu, the piece has some intriguing moments, but when watching it you start to wonder if the primary decision makers behind Paris Je T'Aime wouldn't have benefitted by cutting loose at least half a dozen of the shorts in this feature to give the promising ones like this one more room to breathe. Twenty or more stories can work in a written short story collection because we pick it up in installments -- with a film, we have to absorb it all at once.
Of the segments I'd prefer to have not absorbed at all, one is Porte de Choisy, a pointlessly extravagant little piece set in a Chinese beauty salon. More like a music video than a short film with anything to say, it struck me as a lot of smoke and mirrors -- the kind of piece you would want to mine if you were making a trailer for Paris Je T'Aime since it contains a lot of intriguing, incongruous images, but that doesn't mean they add up to anything when strung together. There's also Place des Victoires, an unwieldy and bizarre entry from Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa. I sort of regret that I wasn't paying close enough attention to this one, since I'd like to have understood why Willem Dafoe eventually shows up as a cowboy on a horse, but there you go. Paris Je T'Aime is an overloaded boat, listing in the harbor from all of the half-formed ideas and personalities and characters that have crowded on board. About 40 of its 120 minutes is worth saving -- the rest should have been thrown overboard.