I have a real thing for French films, to my husband’s mild amusement. It started years ago with Amélie and went a little wild from there. The French have a knack for meditating on the small moments and little pleasures of life that resonates with me and contrasts strongly with American cinema’s large-stroke style and forceful drive through a plot. So perhaps it’s no wonder that my meditation on the sheer universality of the human need for love and relationships has been most recently prompted by two films about people in the City of Love itself.
Private Fears in Public Places
Private Fears in Public Places – or in succinct French, Coeurs (“Hearts”)—is the second of the veteran director Resnais’s films to be based on the work of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn (the first was Smoking/No Smoking in 1993). There are six Parisians in Private Fears in Public Places—a realtor who fancies his secretary, who has a kind and patient heart but whose pious innocence is in question; an engaged couple doing some apartment-hunting; a bartender living with an ailing, belligerent father and a beautiful girl who is looking for a man in blind date after blind date. Their stories loosely interlock in a balletic configuration through a curiously snowy landscape, and the story’s original theatricality is maintained in its staging and lighting; during one pivotal conversation, it even begins snowing in the kitchen.
I wanted desperately to love this movie, with its elegance, its quiet confidence, its crisp narrative clarity—but I left feeling empty and dissatisfied. The venerable French actors play two-dimensional characters whose motivations are completely transparent (I guessed most of the plot twists long before they occurred), and despite the wall-to-wall talking typical of films adapted from the theater, these stories simply never congeal into something interesting. Instead of provoking empathy in the audience for the characters, Resnais never develops their personalities, leaving the viewer to watch people go through motions and talk about feelings.
On the other hand, many of the characters end the film alone, empty and unsatisfied, with a single spotlight illuminating each in a final shot. So perhaps Resnais had his way after all; perhaps he intended to create a sort of meta-film that leaves the viewer feeling the loneliness and longing of the story. These are people trying to connect with one another but never quite getting there.
Paris, je t’aime
If Private Fears is a cup of tea and a biscuit in a quiet cafe, Paris, je t’aime (literally, “Paris, I love you”) is a multi-course feast around a table of laughing, shouting revelers. Many years in the making, this full-length film is a vivacious collection of 18, five-minute shorts directed by international luminaries, not the least of whom are brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, The Big Lebowski), Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men), Alexander Payne (Sideways), Wes Craven (Scream) and the lord of French cinema, Gerard Depardieu. Working with a glittering cast (including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Steve Buscemi, Elijah Wood, Juliette Binoche, Marianne Faithfull, Bob Hoskins, Gena Rowlands and Emily Mortimer, as well as a score of renowned French actors and actresses), each director crafted a vignette bearing their own unique and recognizable fingerprint. The 18 works share only their producers and the mandate to “tell the story of a romantic encounter in Paris”—and with that, the filmmakers set to work.
The stories are variations on the “romantic encounter” theme, though some are much looser interpretations than others. In these narratives are the full spectrum of love, relationship and loneliness, everything from dramatic realism to stylized horror to surrealism to comedy. The unscary ghost of Oscar Wilde appears in a graveyard in broad daylight to help a young man salvage his relationship. A grieving mother dreams of her dead son and a cowboy who unites them, if briefly. An older American couple meets in Paris to finalize their divorce over amicably bitter glass of wine. A husband leaves his mistress and learns to love his wife—just a little too late. And even vampires can find true love.
It would be impossible to evaluate the cinematic merits of each vignette in the space I’ve got here, but since each piece lasts only five minutes, there’s something for everyone. Each film boasts world-class cinematographers, screenwriters and directors. Each is named after its setting in a different section of Paris.
Taken as a whole, however, there’s a bigger picture here made up of each vignette; at its heart, Paris, je t’aime is a love letter to the City of Lights. And anyone who’s fallen in love with a place knows though they may have been drawn by the cultural life, the world-class food, the architecture or the industry, it’s the people that keep them there. (Case in point: the producers are planning New York, I Love You and Tokyo, I Love You.)
Paris, je t’aime serves to remind the viewer first of the commonality of the human (and apparently vampire) need for relationships. Not an earth-shattering revelation, but the Christian viewer is reminded that God built this facet of His character into all His children; as He lives in fellowship in the Trinity, so do we find our fulfillment in fellowship and in love.