How many crooning songs, how many sentimental films have tried to capture the je ne sais quoi of Paris? The steps under the Sacre-Coeur, the stairways of Montmarte, cafes on La Rive auche: there’s something pretty captivating about this city. Its unique mentality, its sounds and its movements, its lights and its ambiance – this, the most evocative of cities, has long won the hearts of artists, and is it any surprise that there is such an urge to pay homage to the city of les beaux arts, the home of so many great creators, in a grand artistic gesture?
But, on second thoughts, aren’t some of those songs pretty crap? And the films, aren’t they corny as hell? Gay Paris, accordions and Edith Piaf’s voice, maybe even a couple walking down the banks of the Seine – Paris inspires cliché.
And yet, there’s a way in which French cinema, in particular, can get away with clicheÌ. Enter CeÌdric Klapisch and his 2008 film Paris. The premise of the film is already pretty well done, but Klapisch adds an extra dimension with an interesting frame narrative: a professional dancer called Pierre awaits a heart transplant, which, if successful, could save his life, and while housebound in limbo before the life or death operation, he begins to pass his time watching the people of Paris from his apartment’s balcony. The film has multiple narrative levels, as we watch the lives of strangers unfold and unknowingly cross paths with one another, all knitted together by the gaze of Pierre looking on from above – a Parisian both apart from and at the heart of his city.
You should already be hearing ‘Sous le ciel de Paris’ trilling in your head by now, and Klapisch’s film makes no bones about being a sentimental paean to the metropolis, setting itself knowingly alongside the likes of Piaf’s song in a great tradition of Paris in art. But this film is the homage aÌ€ Paris par excellence. The characters gives us a Paris we can feel. Romain Duris’s moody, terrified and heartbreakingly nostalgic Pierre is the emotional backbone of the film, supported wonderfully (both as actor and as character) by Juliette Binoche as his sister EÌlise, who whilst juggling a difficult work life and three children nurses Pierre before his operation, while throughout her own complex narrative she works out her attitudes towards love and relationships. My favourite character is hands down Fabrice Luchini’s wonderful Roland, an academic at the Sorbonne who, while filming a documentary on the history of Paris, starts up a relationship with a young and beautiful student by texting her Baudelaire quotes (that he is successful is once again only possible in the world of French cinema). Other strands of the plot include Khajida, a student who struggles to work in a bakery whose owner is shockingly prejudiced, and Mourad, a Cameroonian immigrant trying to authorise his brother’s entry into Paris (helped by EÌlise, who is a social worker).
Ultimately it is Klapisch’s masterful style as a director that makes this story of many stories so beautiful and evocative, and in Paris he perfects the mosaic style he developedin L’Auberge Espagnole (a must-watch for anyone doing an Erasmus year). His ability to cut between scenes and events, to meld in surreal dream sequences and jump between different realities, is what binds together these disparate if overlapping narratives into one great panoramic image of Paris. Were the film in English, I would probably say that it was corny, it was clicheÌ. But here, Klapisch succeeds in marrying the Paris of the cultural imagination with a living, struggling, loving city – and it’s never looked better.