There is perhaps no country as obsessed with its own capital city as France is with Paris. From the moment René Clair lowered a camera down the center of the Eiffel Tower in 1925 to capture spectacular views of the city in “Paris qui dort,” French filmmakers have been unable to tear their attention away from the City of Light. This is unfortunate for Cédric Klapisch, previously the director of “L’Auberge Espagnole,” a 2002 sleeper hit popular enough to inspire a 2005 sequel, with another in the works. In his latest film, “Paris,” Klapisch squanders both his own considerable skill and creativity and that of the majority of his cast on a paean to the city that borrows shamelessly from other, better movies—the plot of “Rear Window,” the ensemble structure of “Magnolia,” and the underlying philosophy of “Amélie.”
“Paris” follows the tribulations of Pierre (Romain Duris), a dancer whose routines involve more feather boas than real talent. Fortunately for the audience, we are only subjected to a few flashbacks of his career; Pierre has a severe heart disease and now spends his time observing his fellow Parisians while he waits for an operation that promises only a 50 percent chance of saving his life. His sister, Élise (Juliette Binoche), moves into his apartment to take care of him while struggling with her own romantic difficulties. The plot then alternates between Pierre and Élise’s battles against illness and loneliness, and the lives of other Parisians, many of whom are only tangentially related to the main characters.
The most compelling element of the film is easily Binoche’s portrayal of Élise, a kindly single mother who is not above snapping at panhandlers and entering homes under false pretenses to get her brother a date. Unfortunately, Duris, who also starred in “L’Auberge Espagnole,” does not bring the same life to Pierre. As he comes to terms with his illness, Pierre’s voyeurism becomes increasingly creepy, and Duris’ attempts at understatement fail to make these scenes work. When he contacts his childhood crush to inform her that he is still in love with her, he invites neither pity nor disgust; the audience simply wonders when Klapisch will grant us another scene with Binoche. Because Pierre’s experiences are the foundation of the movie, even the talent of Binoche and the solid cinematography can’t salvage “Paris.”
The vignettes about other Parisians are much stronger than Pierre’s scenes, particularly the story of Benoît (Kingsley Kum Abang), a hotel waiter who immigrates to Paris from Cameroon. The images of his dusty village are colorful but forlorn, and his conversations with a supermodel staying at his hotel are rich with political subtext absent from Pierre’s self-indulgent monologues. It’s a shame that Klapisch didn’t set the entire film in Cameroon; perhaps it would have had the substance and originality that “Paris” strives for but doesn’t achieve.
Klapisch still proves himself a master at directing awkward interactions, and some of the film’s best acted and most affecting moments come at the expense of characters that have just said too much or too little.
About halfway through the film, there is a delightful, computer-animated dream sequence that seems to herald a more imaginative turn. This is followed by several clever and visually striking set pieces involving the secondary characters, but unfortunately Klapisch is unable to maintain his momentum. The film lurches into a forced ending in which many of the loose ends are tied up just a bit too cleanly, and Pierre helpfully offers the moral of the story in a voiceover for those who haven’t figured it out by that point.
Klapisch seems to be directing on autopilot, producing a mildly engaging trifle until he can return to the characters from “L’Auberge,” a less ambitious but far more satisfying film. But “Paris” does suggest a more serious, polished direction for Klapisch. If this is the case, and if his lovely Cameroon vignette is more than a throwaway nod to Paris’ immigrants, he may yet have a great film on his horizon. He just needs to look outside of Paris.