If the critical act can be described simply as the attempt to reconcile in words a personal aesthetic philosophy with that of another as expressed through an artistic work, then criticism comes easiest when a work’s flaws and missteps are apparent, the creator’s ineptitude runs rampant, or the guiding moral compass is utterly flawed. More difficult is a case like Christophe Honore‘s “Dans Paris,” which is a highly polished, assured film that manages to sustain a series of jaunty aesthetic risks that never obscure the narrative’s core of sadness and melancholy.
The director’s playful daring is often remarkable, as is the ease with which he moves his film along. Also, the performances of his small ensemble are generally without reproach. But still, somehow, the end of “Dans Paris” left me with nagging doubts about just how genuine Honore’s project actually is.
“Dans Paris” is the story of two brothers: Paul (Romain Duris, inexplicably praised in “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and overly maligned in “Moliere“), fresh from the end of a disastrous relationship with longtime girlfriend Anna (Joana Preiss), and Jonathan (Louis Garrel), younger, wilder, an erstwhile student self-tasked with lifting his brother’s spirits. Honore does not structure his tale as a showcase for France’s most popular young male talents to comradely riff off of one another–instead, more often than not he separates the two actors for the majority of the film. This is established right from the outset, as Garrel provides narration about his brother’s plight directly to the camera, instantly signaling Honore’s desire to batter down that pesky fourth wall. Appropriately enough, where Jonathan’s telling of Paul’s story ends, the film neatly begins in earnest.
In a move reminiscent of Rivette’s extended improvisations with Bulle Ogier and Jean-Pierre Kolfon in “L’amour fou,” Honore wildly splices bits and snatches of Paul and Anna’s arguments together, willfully disregarding chronology and spatial relations. These constitute the film’s best sequence, which exhibits a neophyte director honing his craft through practical application. It’s clear Honore’s carefully studied the canon, as he allows his performers room to fight and fuck, listen to music, dance, crumble apart, take risks. It’s sloppy and flabby, but when was the last time the bitter end of a bond between two people was anything but?
It’s once Paul has left suburban life and moved in with his father (a doleful, Cesar-nominated Guy Marchand) and Jonathan that “Dans Paris” begins to seem more as though its Nouvelle Vague-isms prop up a flimsy skeleton rather than provide a foundation for departure. Jonathan’s dash through the city to meet his brother (he has Paul promise to leave the apartment and join him if he makes it to a spot before an appointed time) is broken up by three dalliances with two random women and one ex-girlfriend. These petites amoureuses (to cite a far better film that inspired “Dans Paris”) are intercut with Paul milking a mighty wallow back at the apartment, all set to a never obtrusive collection of bouncy jazz instrumentals. Garrel’s quest, for everything it struggles to endear, is questionably likable, even if the actor is generally winning. More successful is a late film musical number by phone that’s as touching as it is unexpected.
Flashes of filmmaking candor can’t quite expunge the whiff of glibness in the mix, the sense that Honore may not be taking his premise and stylistic reaches all that seriously. With a film like “Dans Paris” this probably won’t present a huge obstacle for most, and I’d be lying if I claimed that I wasn’t intermittently charmed.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.]