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By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/7/2009

Since his 1996 When the Cat's Away, Cédric Klapisch has become France's congenial director of sprawling romantic comedies, typified by his 2002 hit L'auberge espagnole and its quasi-sequel, 2005's Russian Dolls. He excels at interweaving overlapping stories of large casts falling in and out of romantic predicaments that shape their lives. These stories can get heavy and poignant, but for the most part are light-hearted and fun, as if Klapisch works best when the worst thing that can befall a person is being rejected in love.

Such rejection pops up in his new Paris, but it's merely one of many calamities that crush his characters. Paris, which unwinds like a roundelay portrait of the city itself, does involve a large cast of eventually interconnected characters and their lives, but the lively spark that illuminates Klapisch's work has been replaced by a serious consideration of mortality, due to dancer Pierre's (Klapisch regular Romain Duris) heart condition, which threatens to end his life should he not get a transplant. He retreats to his flat with a balcony that overlooks the city, where he likes spending his days looking out and imagining all the different stories that may be happening.

Some of those involve history professor Roland Verneuil (Fabrice Luchini) hitting midlife and embarking on a lowly but high-paying TV gig and getting involved with a student, Laetitia (Inglorious Basterds' Mélanie Laurent, looking more absolutely gorgeous than any actress, even a French one, has a right to). Others involve the love triangle at the produce market where Pierre's sister Élise (Juliette Binoche) picks up vegetables to make dinner with once she and her three kids move in with Pierre to keep him company.

Klapisch gamely structures his panorama with a series of subtle parallels--the sibling relationship of Pierre and Élise is played off the one between Roland and his architect brother (Francois Cluzet); the produce market triangle doubled by the one involving Roland, Laetitia, and the young man more her age--and, as usual, an intoxicating mix of images and music (from the likes of French production unit Kraked Unit, Erik Satie, and Bach). But something about the tone feels off: Klapisch's casual flair for the comic gem is superb--Roland teaching Laetitia '60s dance moves to Wilson Pickett is nothing but net--but emotional heaviness eludes him, as if he has to turn to an elision of images to convey what words can't.

That doesn't make Paris a total downer, just a tad underwhelming. But when it works--and many individual scenes are perfectly pitched--it's a joy to watch, such as the party Élise throws for Pierre with all his dancing friends. A party of dancers is a blithe idea, and Klapisch orchestrates a lovely scene where Pierre tries to do what he's always loved to do, but his heart keeps slowing him down.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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