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City of Light is ideal partner for 'camera, action!'

The Baltimore Sun

We'll always have Paris," Mister Rick told Ilsa in Casablanca. The line cemented Americans' continuing affair with the City of Light as the perfect setting for romance and intrigue. And this delightfully dangerous liaison has never gone out of fashion, no matter how much our public figures deride France as a soft-sister democracy.

In the appealingly amorous dramedy Broken English, opening today at the Charles, a heroine with the classic movie name Nora Wilder undertakes what has become the quintessential quest for a metropolis also known as the City of Love.

She's searching for her true love -- a movie soundman from Marseilles, whom she met back in New York. But, once she arrives in town, she immediately loses his phone number.

We'll always have Paris," Mister Rick told Ilsa in Casablanca. The line cemented Americans' continuing affair with the City of Light as the perfect setting for romance and intrigue. And this delightfully dangerous liaison has never gone out of fashion, no matter how much our public figures deride France as a soft-sister democracy.

In the appealingly amorous dramedy Broken English, opening today at the Charles, a heroine with the classic movie name Nora Wilder undertakes what has become the quintessential quest for a metropolis also known as the City of Love.

She's searching for her true love -- a movie soundman from Marseilles, whom she met back in New York. But, once she arrives in town, she immediately loses his phone number.

She finds something better: an oasis of the intangible, where she can forget her lost ambitions as an artist and failed career as a hotel special-services manager and awaken to the sensations inside herself.

Nora delivers a package to an elderly woman in a recessed city house whose courtyard and walls promise tingling revelations. One of those immediately follows when the woman says she's Nora's grandmother. She rightly urges the panicky thirtysomething to stop worrying about landing the right man.

To pass the time, Nora goes on a shopping spree with her best friend, Audrey, knowing that even consumerism in Paris has a certain je ne sais quois. If you think the Wilder in Nora Wilder refers to Billy Wilder, the auteur of the Paris-set Love in the Afternoon, Audrey, the name of Billy Wilder's wife, clinches it.

When the movie's Audrey flies back to New York, Nora stays on. She visits an art gallery where a happy, hirsute Frenchman charmingly chats her up and invites her to share a glass of wine with a couple of friends. She feels comfortable enough to ask if all Frenchmen are so "passionate and interested" and whether their mothers and their food figure into their romantic equations.

Ultimately, at a dressy, wood-lined bar, she meets an older man who tells her exactly what she needs to hear -- that she may be the rare person who doesn't just want love to cushion her loneliness but to provide her life with magic. By the time magic catches up with her, Paris has readied her for it.

Broken English isn't in the same league as my favorite Paris matches of the last two decades, Richard Linklater's Before Sunset (2004) and Philip Kaufman's Henry & June (1990), and it lacks the originality and daring of Jonathan Demme's Charade remake, The Truth About Charlie (2001).

But it has enough charged reverie to re-ignite Paris in moviegoers' imaginations as the capital of romantic alchemy -- just as two of the summer's biggest hits, Brad Bird's Ratatouille and Michael Moore's Sicko, seal it as the place where you go to heal yourself aesthetically and physically.

Ratatouille may be a portrait of a rodent as a genius cook, but it's also the tale of the young hero from the provinces realizing his potential in the capital -- a story that resonates in French culture in everything from The Three Musketeers to The Red and the Black.

Bird's plucky hero Remy would be lost as a country rat, struggling to test his culinary abilities with anything he can filch from a nearby cottage. But, as a city rat, his creative horizons glow like the iridiscent cityscape.

Ratatouille's mix of wit and sensuality derives partly from its pointed, generous evocations of high-style Gallic hedonism. Gusteau's formerly five-star restaurant features crackling white tablecloths, deep velvet upholstery and extravagant bouquets in the dining room. The kitchen contains glistening cooking spaces and a dazzling array of pots and pans that convey the warmth and wear of much good use. And then, of course, there's the one girl cook, Colette, who zips around town on her sporty black motorcycle.

If Ratatouille proves too whimsical and nostalgic a view of Paris for you, there's always Sicko, in which Moore poses as an innocent abroad in order to ask haute-bourgeois Parisians whether the costs of supporting universal health care cripples their lifestyle.

The answer is a thundering non, but Moore milks the question for canisters of genial comedy. In a farcical high point, one couple testifies that procuring good quality at decent prices is more of a problem for them when it comes to fish and vegetables than medicine.

Plus, even if you dismiss Moore's perspective outright, there's something cheerfully humorous about this sloppy, oversized American discoursing on innate medical rights with toned and coiffed natives and expatriates over fine wine and gourmet coffee.

Just the thought of bulky Moore in the shadow of that magnificent spindle, the Eiffel Tower, inspires goodhearted mirth. The image suggests, once again, that no matter how politics can separate us as citizens, as movie-lovers -- as Mister Rick said -- we'll always have Paris.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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