Paris is a city of neighborhoods. Now, I know that other cities say they are, but the particular geography of the French capital and its ring of “arrondissements” lends itself to the cocooned storytelling structure of this omnibus. While New York is a series of intersecting grids and colliding narratives, Paris seems to keep its stories nestled within the recesses of its winding streets. The sheer scale of this 18-story project guarantees unevenness, but since each director has just ten minutes of screen time, none of the duds sink the project.
Despite the number of voices, there is for the most part a cohesive tone throughout, a sort of ragged romanticism. A general split occurs between stories about natives vs. tales of outsiders trying to find their footing in a foreign land. Standouts in the former include Bruno Padalydès’ Montmartre, about a lovelorn young man who finds the proverbial damsel in distress, Isabel Coixet’s affecting Bastille, about a man’s surprising romantic transformation, and Nobuhiro Suwa’s idiosyncratic Place Des Victoires, a peculiar urban ghost story.
There are many more examples of foreigners alighting upon the City of Lights and some big names attached as well. The most successful ones are those that go beyond the fish-out-of-water trope. All the big names seem to fall back on their trademark stylistic quirks — Gus van Sant’s ambivalent pouty sexuality (so-so), the Coen Brothers’ slapstick featuring Steve Buscemi (good), Tom Tykwer’s cine-kinesis, Alfonso Cuarón’s verité (better) and Olivier Assayas’ vertiginous debauchery starring a lonely drug-addled Maggie Gyllenhaal (excellent). The trump card is played by Alexander Payne whose characteristic middle-American distinguishes herself by expressing all her thoughts in the language of Molière by way of Montana.