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'Paris' kicks off Johns Hopkins' French Cinema Festival

Cinematic tributes to great cities used to be called "symphonies of the street." Cedric Klapisch's "Paris," a multicharacter tapestry of the City of Light, is more like an eclectic pops concert. It pulls together diverse residents of the city, from produce vendors to academics, and trains a loving eye on their unique environments and the urban landscapes they all share. It's an ideal choice to kick off the second annual Tournées Festival of Contemporary French Cinema at Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus. The festival is free and open to the public. (For a full schedule, click here.)

The old symphonies of the street often stayed in the street. Klapisch takes us inside a savory bakery, a bristling open-air market and an august yet inviting academy, as well as chic and untidy flats, hospital rooms, terraces and plazas.

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To his credit, the director doesn't labor to tie his multiple story lines together. Klapisch's bobbing, weaving, open-ended narrative reflects the eternal flux of Paris. It's constantly drawing on the past and altering the present as it improvises a future. The director proves his savvy when he includes, as a major character, a historian named Roland Verneuil (Fabrice Luchini), who articulates his vision of the city as an always modernist metropolis.

Roland himself is a paradigm of barely controlled chaos. He's on the brink of becoming an upscale TV celebrity as a popularizer of Paris lore when he develops an obsessive crush on a stunning student (Melanie Laurent). He vents confused scorn on his brother (Francois Cluzet), a successful architect with a solid marriage and a happy vision of the future, including a baby on the way. Roland's visit to a shrink is a mini-masterpiece of comic timing; his character both imbues the film with comic pathos and pushes the action forward. He sums up the spirit of Parisian anarchy in his mood and manner.But at dead-center of Klapisch's vision is a former chorus boy named Pierre (Romain Duris). He contemplates the metropolis as he waits for a heart transplant that will guarantee him only a 40 percent chance of recovery. In one of the film's many vivid contrasts, Pierre's social-worker sister, Elise (Juliette Binoche), who moves in with her three children to care for him before his operation, comes to stand for the native wit and toughness we associate with working heroines from Paris' Popular Front culture of the 1930s. When she simultaneously enters the world of a fruit and vegetable salesman (Albert Dupontel), she becomes an urban Earth mother.

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Pierre experiences a fine moment of near-epiphany when he observes a tangled bunch of sleeping children: He sees the beauty that is there, and the beauty that is to come. Klapisch overdraws on this character's poignancy as a dancer who can no longer trip the light fantastic. But his movie boasts many similar passages of genuine magic.

The most wizardly sequence follows a quartet of food vendors as they lead four fashionistas on a tour of giant, air-cooled warehouses. One rough, fun-loving guy breaks off a fling with a model because she suddenly reminds him of a lover who has just died.

It's a perfect vignette: surprising, inevitable and emotionally complete.

Unexpected perfection within imperfections: That's what Klapisch loves about Paris.

"Paris" unspools Wednesday, March 2, at 7:30 p.m., in Mudd Hall, Room 26. It

will be presented by Kristin Cook-Gailloud, director of the French language program in Krieger School's Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures.

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