December 29th, 2006

The City of a Thousand Leaves

Posted in Europe, Film, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Running across the boulevard Saint-Germain, through the Carrefour de l’Odéon, we dashed into the box office and bought our tickets, ducking into the darkened cinema just as the opening credits finished. We sat down in the back row, interrupting a clearly annoyed couple’s face-sucking session, and watched as the first short began: “Montmartre.”

Paris, je t’aime, which we had just handed over our seven euros to see, is a collective film (it’s composed of eighteen segments) directed by a number of big names from around the world, including the Coen Brothers, Gurinder Chadha and Olivier Assayas. Each segment is set in a different part of Paris and deals with, in some way, love. In “Loin du 16ème,” Walter Salles depicts a young Latin American mother who must leave her own child in a suburban daycare in order to care for another in the wealthy sixteenth arrondissement. Sylvain Chomet’s “Tour Eiffel” is an irreverent and off-kilter take on the life of mimes.

Paris, je t’aime is more than just a collection of disparate shorts. Its producers like to call it a “collective film,” since it understands the futility of trying to reduce the Parisian experience into a single story—any attempt to do so will result in an enjoyable but empty Amélie fantasy. Instead, Paris, je t’aime suggests that Paris is a city of vignettes, a collection of dramas that share the same stage. Of course, every city is like this to some extent, but in Paris the effect is exaggerated by geographical compactness. Central Paris is a neat circle just ten kilometres across, ringed by the Périphérique highway; within its boundaries, the city is a treasure chest of humanity.

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Leading into the Goutte d’Or

That’s certainly what it felt like in the Goutte d’Or; a poor, chaotic and colourful neighbourhood just steps away from the demure streets of Montmartre. It was here that I started to feel like a character in my very own Paris, je t’aime short. On a sweaty afternoon in July, my girlfriend and I emerged from Château-Rouge metro into a packed street market where women in bright African dresses chattered excitedly. We must have stuck out as we strolled down the rue des Poissonnières, a camera-toting white guy and Asian girl surrounded by faces every shade of brown.

The Goutte d’Or has a nervous energy fuelled by shifty-eyed drug dealers, counterfeit bag vendors and market vendors shouting across the street to one another. Three police officers glared at passers-by and randomly checked for identity papers. A family of blond, fair-skinned tourists, probably Scandinavian and clearly lost, stood in front of a grocery store while the father filmed the street on his camcorder and the mother squinted with consternation at a map. Their son, meanwhile, stared quizzically at a tall black man leaning against a car. Suddenly, he lunged, hugging the man as if he was a favourite uncle. Taken aback, the man stared at the little boy clutching his waist with confusion.

Finally, as if to complete the scene, a woman walked by, singing to us: “They’re taking photos / But this isn’t the Champs-Élysées.” A woman demanded, more directly: “Why are you taking photos here?” It was as complete as perfectly rendered as a short film. But the Goutte d’Or wasn’t unique; every day seemed to plunge us in a new mise-en-scène more distinct than the last. Sunset on the Seine was a half-drunk mix of golden light, picnickers and couples necking by the water. The action in the St-Ouen flea market, pulsating to the beat of hip hop and raï, reached a climax on the afternoon before France played Italy in the World Cup final. The ritualistic blaring of car horns mixed with shouts and whistles; in a broken-down sedan lurching through gridlocked traffic, three men leaned out the window and screamed, “On va manger des pâtes ce soir!” (We’re going to eat pasta tonight!)

Where Paris, je t’aime and our experience of Paris converged most directly was in Chinatown, a leafy district in the thirteenth arrondissement, centred on a high-rise housing project and shopping complex—Les Olympiades—that would not look out of place in a working-class part of Hong Kong. In “Porte de Choisy,” Christopher Doyle, the celebrated cinematographer for such Wong Kar-Wai films as In the Mood for Love and 2046, wildly mixes genres to poke fun at Chinatown exoticism. His absurdist short combines Chinese opera and kung fu with preening slow-motion shots of ancestral altars and a twisted love story between a French salesman of hair products for Asian women and the fierce Chinese owner of a hair salon.

When we visited, there was nobody flying through the air and shouting in a hysterical blend of Cantonese, Mandarin and French, but “Porte de Choisy” captured the strange, almost surreal ambiance of Chinatown. On the avenue d’Ivry, broken escalators lead up to a vast plaza containing a lonely Vietnamese supermarket that had thrown itself at the feet of great grey high-rises. Outside the entrance to the strangely named Paris-Store, where Asian kitsch mixed freely with fresh durian, men reading Chinese newspapers sat on concrete steps to nowhere. Nearby, the Tang Frères supermarket emerged from behind the entrance to a parking garage like a post-industrial mirage; next to it, in a small seating area where green Astroturf had been laid down on the asphalt, a Buddhist monk sat on a bench, sipping juice from a young coconut.

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Outside Tang Frères in the 13th

What I suspected from my time in Paris was confirmed by that evening screening of Paris, je t’aime on the boulevard St-Germain. Paris is not just a patchwork city, but a mille-feuille; a pretty, delicate package that, cut open, contains countless layers. The only way to truly understand the city is to pry them open, savouring them a bite at a time.


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