J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Klapisch’s Paris

In large metropolitan cities, many diverse lives intersect, while still living in their own socially distinct worlds. Though such multi-character degrees-of-separation treatments have become staples at recent film festivals, when the city is Paris and Juliette Binoche plays the female lead, it is worth taking another cinematic tour across municipal divisions of class and ethnicity. Indeed, everyone is somehow connected in Cédric Klapisch’s Paris (trailer here), a decidedly bittersweet valentine to the City of Light, which opens tomorrow in New York City.

Pierre is dying—most likely. It is possible that a Hail Mary heart transplant could save his life, but he refuses to live in false hope. Estranged from most of his family, he eventually breaks the news to his sister Elise. Though there is tension in their relationship too, she immediately moves in (with her children in tow) to care for him. As a professional social worker and single mother of three, taking care of people is what she does.

Before his body betrayed him, Pierre was a dancer. Now it is difficult for him to leave the apartment, so he contents himself with watching the teeming Parisian life he spies from his window. Across the street, there is the pretty college student who has attracted the awkward romantic attentions of her celebrity history professor. In the neighborhood bakery, the snobbish proprietor oversees her pleasant new immigrant assistant. Nearby, the fish-mongers and produce-sellers peddle their wares, and everyone can somehow be traced back to Pierre and his sister.

Perfectly cast as Elise and Pierre, Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris look and feel like real siblings. Frankly, Binoche is one of the great screen actresses of her time, who always brings something intriguing to each new role. Duris, a mainstay of Klapisch’s films, nicely captures the emotional and physical pain of the formerly vital Pierre as he is forced to confront his mortality at a tragically early stage of life.

When Paris focuses on the relationship between the grown siblings, it is an honest, powerful film. However, the further it wanders from Pierre’s apartment, the less it holds together dramatically. The fish-mongers are in fact quite well delineated, salty characters that have a definite place in Elise’s world. However, when the scene shifts to North Africa to follow the family of an immigrant she counsels, Klapisch roams too far off course (the film is called Paris, after all).

Despite the considerable pain and ugliness that characters endure, the film is still a loving tribute to the title city. Klapisch shrewdly juxtaposes the ancient and the ultra-modern, thoroughly conveying a sense of what it is like to live in Pierre’s neighborhood. In fact, cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne makes the city sparkle with beauty.

Though the multi-character format gets a bit messy, the central story of Paris is ultimately quite moving. Featuring excellent lead performances from Binoche and Duris, it is also an effective commercial on behalf of Parisian tourism. Sure to please Francophiles and Binoche admirers (surely that includes nearly everyone), Paris opens tomorrow (9/18) at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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