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.
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. 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 stunningly gorgeous student (Melanie Laurent). He vents some 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. 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. Pierre's illness opens him up to the richness of melancholy: He drinks in the generalized Parisian anarchy that Roland sums up in his flesh and moods and manner.
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 enters the world of a fruit and vegetable salesman (Albert Dupontel), she becomes (to go from the sublime to the ridiculous) what Jennifer Aniston only aspired to be in "Love Happens": a genuine healing force - an urban Earth mother.
Oddly, the movie develops a wavery feeling mostly because of its hero. 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. But Klapisch overdraws on this character's poignancy as a dancer who can no longer trip the light fantastic.
Still, Klapisch's movie boasts 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 moment: surprising, inevitable and emotionally complete. Unexpected perfection within imperfections: That's what Klapisch loves about Paris. That's what he captures in "Paris."
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Running time: 2:09
Starring Juliette Binoche (Elise) and Romain Duris (Pierre). An IFC Films release. Directed by Cedric Klapisch. In French with English subtitles