Undoubtedly the film capital of Europe, there were apparently no less than 765 films made in Paris in 2007 alone, and increasingly in recent years it is the city itself that has become the subject for French and international filmmakers. Luc Besson’s Angel-a (2005) was a thinly disguised love-letter to the most romantic city in the world, showing Paris in all its grandeur and glamour, while Christopher Honoré would take a more proletarian view of life on the streets for ordinary people in Dans Paris (2006) and Les chansons d’amour (2007) and in the process still manage to touch on the magical essence of the city. Even celebrated Asian directors of the calibre of Hong Sang-soo (Night and Day, 2008) and Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon, 2007) have recently been drawn away from their familiar haunts to find inspiration in a European city whose filmmakers have had worldwide influence.
Tackling the complex nature of the city itself, its history and its people head-on however inevitably has its difficulties for the filmmaker who needs to look past the picture-postcard images and tourist haunts to uncover a heart in all this diversity. One approach, originally adopted by the Nouvelle Vague film directors in Paris vu par... (1965) and more recently seen in Paris je t’aime (2006), is to look at it from a number of perspectives, the latter film giving no less than eighteen international directors the chance to provide their own unique take on the city in format of a portmanteau film. Such an approach is traditionally hit-and-miss, inconsistent and lacking coherence and although the more modern outlook on the city did have its gems of inspiration and originality, even those are stifled somewhat by their necessary brevity.
A wider canvas is inevitably required to do justice to such a subject, but the choral or ensemble approach is no less fraught with difficulties. In Paris, Cedric Klapish weaves together the stories of a historian (Fabrice Luchini), a social worker (Juliette Binoche), a Moulin Rouge dancer (Romain Duris), a building constructor (François Cluzet), a market stall holder (Albert Dupontel), a bakery shop owner (Karin Viard), a fashion model (Olivia Bonamy), a young student (Mélanie Laurent), one of the younger French-born generation of North African immigrants (Sabrina Ouazani), and a representative of the continued influx of new African immigrant population (Kingsley Kum Abang), bringing them all together into a big ensemble piece. While character development is inevitably somewhat diluted when spread across such a broad cast, there is at least expected to be a compensating factor of something greater arising out of the connections that are drawn between them.
It’s amazing that then that a film can takes Paris as its subject, have a diverse range of characters that look at life from a number of perspectives and an exceptionally strong cast, and yet still manage to say absolutely nothing of interest about the city and its inhabitants. The perspective moreover is perhaps inevitably primarily middle-class, middle-aged and limited to little more than the romantic misadventures of a group of people who feel that life has nothing more to offer and Kaplish manages to reduce their lives to nothing more than a series of clichés, banal observations and embarrassing situations. It seems you’re never too old to make a complete fool of yourself. The director makes a token effort to introduce some marginalised characters into the mix – a homeless person who makes one or two brief appearances, a young girl of North African origin who has to put up with inadvertent racism from her employer in a bakery, and the unlikely scenario of a Cameroon migrant who has struck up an acquaintance of a supermodel who he intends to meet-up with when he reaches his destination of the city of dreams – but clearly having no understanding of their situation or circumstances, the director really has no idea what to do with them and they consequently fail to integrate meaningfully into the overall ensemble narrative.
...And yet, somehow Paris manages to make some minor impact, perhaps simply through the force of its two-hour-plus length or through the strength of some fine performances. Romain Duris is saddled once again after Dans Paris with spending the majority of a film trapped within himself locked in a room rather than in Paris as such, but he still manages to bring his customary intensity to his character, even if his motivation at a particularly important moment in his life is reduced to not much more than desperately seeking to have sex with someone. It’s also really nice to see Karin Viard stretch her repetoire past her usual tedious thirtysomething rom-com and female empowerment roles, and she brings a delightful touch to the thankless and unsympathetic casting of her as the gossipy and casually rascist bakery owner. It is Juliette Binoche as social worker Élise however whose luminous presence brings a sense of warmth, sincerity and vitality to Paris, one far and above what the film really deserves. Binoche’s ability as an actress can rarely be questioned, but having worked similar miracles recently with her small piece in Paris je t’aime and with a simple, open performance in Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours, she seems to be moving into a new more mature stage in her career and is taking it with a far more relaxed, warm, and open approach than her customary intensity. Those are the characteristics that Paris needs to lift it out of its otherwise banal plotting and standard character-types, and for a brief moment then, somehow Paris still manages to touch a chord. It’s a minor chord to be sure, a faint note rather than a melody, but it’s one that is likely to give some resonance to what has gone before.
Paris is released in the UK by Optimum. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
On the surface there’s not much wrong with the transfer. It’s anamorphic, it’s at the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio, it’s progressively encoded and there’s nothing really in the way of marks on the print or problems with artefacting. It’s passable in that respect, but otherwise it’s a rather dull and lacklustre image, overly soft, the colours poorly defined with skin tones in particular looking yellowish and smeary.
There are a full set of audio options from the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix to a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a DTS 5.1 track. The DTS is the strongest and handless reasonably well, but by no means exceptionally. The surrounds are used discreetly for ambience, picking up a little for the music score and everything is clear and well-balanced, but perhaps not as strong and dynamic as you might expect.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional. They are a bit on the large side, remaining in the black border below the image for one line and extending into the frame when covering two lines. The translation is good and handles colloquialism and swearing well.
There are no extra features on the DVD.
If it’s Cédric Kaplish’s intention to find the heart and soul of Paris through a cross-section of its inhabitants, then Paris fails utterly to do so in its rather mundane, clichéd, primarily middle-class and middle-aged outlook. There’s nothing particularly deep or original in the film’s “seize the day” philosophy either – there’s someone for all of us, it’s only a matter of finding the right person and we all have so much in common so why don’t we get on better together. If however you’re not looking for anything particularly challenging and are happy to spend a couple of hours watching some fine French actors giving their best in a well put-together ensemble piece against the background of beautiful Paris, then Paris could provide a pleasant enough experience. Optimum’s UK practically barebones DVD release for such a film is however rather disappointing with its lacklustre transfer and lack of any extra features.