Director Cedric Klapisch’s new film, Paris, begins with young girls looking out over the City of Light and asking their mother, “Where is the universe?” She responds, “Everywhere.” But for the city dwellers in this film, Paris is everywhere.
The focus is on Pierre (Romain Duris), a dancer afflicted with a terminal disease, who spends much of his time looking out his apartment window. As he tells his sister, Elise (Juliette Binoche), a single mother who brings her kids to live with Pierre and care for him in his illness: “It blows my mind to wonder about the lives of others, the heroes in my little stories.” Like many European films, Paris is emotionally restrained even in its depiction of imminent death. For a while, this Gallic austerity has a mesmerizing effect — but the film lacks the vitality to sustain interest in its main characters.
The film allows us to observe a number of Parisians, and we watch as their lives occasionally intersect — but Paris does not attempt to tie these various narratives together in any dramatic way. One has the sense throughout of characters groping for some latent significance, for possibilities dimly apprehended — whether these are prospects for the future or opportunities lost in the past. As Pierre comes to terms with his own mortality, his sister tries to face the dwindling odds that she, as a single mother, will find romance again. Pierre challenges her, “Give chance a chance; your life is not over.”
After Elise decides to help Pierre find a woman with whom to spend his final days, she enters the apartment of an attractive young woman he observed in an adjacent building. On the pretext of doing a survey, she interviews the woman to find out whether she has a boyfriend. She says no, but then a young man arrives, and Pierre witnesses them kissing. Voyeurism, a powerful theme in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, surfaces here — as does Hitch’s question of what happens when the one you are looking at looks back.
But for a film that has a great deal to do with men and women seeing and being seen, Paris is pleasantly free of salacious situations. The closest it comes to unseemly sexual relations is in the attraction of a celebrity history professor, Roland (Fabrice Luchini), to his beautiful student Laetitia (Melanie Laurent). After he overhears her give her phone number to a male student, creepy comedy ensues. He anonymously sends her text messages in teen vernacular (“UR Awesome,” “I am 2 hot 4U”), then follows her around to observe her reactions. Laetitia becomes anxious, concerned that she is being stalked. When Roland reveals himself, awkward moments give way to a sexual relationship. Invigorated, he naïvely supposes that she is interested in a monogamous relationship with him. Knowing that he is in the habit of keeping up with her comings and goings, Laetitia sets things up so that he can “see her life,” a life whose long-term future does not include him.
The denouement of this relationship is not a dramatic confrontation but a somber realization, a quiet puncturing of inflated hope. One might wonder why more is not made of this or that life. In this, the film accurately captures the unfinished character of most of the stories to which we are privy in our own lives: It is not that the stories have no endings, but rather that we fall out of contact or simply get distracted, and then lose touch.
For example, one storyline follows African immigrants, one of whom is a young man who meets a French girl in his native land and promises to look her up in Paris, if ever he finds himself there. As his illegal transport boat is about to depart, he calls her. We do not see him again or hear anyone speak about him. Viewers only learn (or think they learn) his fate when they hear a fleeting radio announcement of a tragedy at sea.
The inclusion of the plight of these immigrants seems like a distraction in a film that is interested mainly in full-fledged Parisians, those for whom the city is the site of birth, death, and every major event in between. Many of the scenes were filmed on location at the great monuments of France. But what is the significance of Paris’s magnificent political and cultural heritage for ordinary citizens?
The question is addressed obliquely in a TV series about Paris, hosted by Roland, the famous history professor. When he’s offered the TV series, Roland is torn between his disdain for crude pop history and his fear of a life devoted to esoteric minutiae. In the end, the show forces him to sort through the deeper issues: What, from the history we have received, should we pass along to the next generation? Does the grand political and cultural heritage of Paris inform the daily lives of its citizens? We get no precise answer here, because Paris is about the quest for belonging in a post-political or apolitical society, in which the private and personal longing of individuals is the ultimate framework of meaning.
The attempt to celebrate the city as the context for these quests fails, despite the fact that Klapisch clearly intends his film as an homage to Paris. Because of this intention, some critics have compared the film to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. But Paris lacks the lush romantic vision of Allen’s film.
Devoted to observation from a distance, the film never fully lets us into the lives of the city and the individuals who reside there. Sensing that there is something here worthy of our attention but never fully drawn in by it, we remain unsatisfied tourists. Stately and attractive, Paris, like its celluloid inhabitants, offers only a surface impression; it never elicits passionate engagement.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.