Chock-a-block with recognizable directors and thespians, "Paris, je t'aime" is a series of vignettes commissioned by producers Emmanuel Benbihy and Claudie Ossard. Each of its 18 segments is ostensibly connected through the concept of L'amour in the City of Lights (introduced, dazzling, under millennial fireworks), which is presumably more spiritually satisfying or noteworthy than the provincial love practiced in, say, Lexington, Kentucky. As a personalized triptych through Paris, the city and entity, there's not much here; read Edmund White's "Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris" if you're in the market for local color. And taken as a whole, cogent piece of work, "Paris" makes an underwhelming survey of the state of the art house - nothing here even whiffs at the rarified abjection found in Antonioni's segment in 1953's similarly conceived, Rome-set "L'Amore in citta."
But the good news about a crowded anthology picture like this is that when you're having a dreary time, all you have to do is hang on for another seven minutes for something more interesting to come along. If Walter Salles's didactic, socially conscious rumination on the ergonomics of nanny labor, "Loin du 16eme," strikes you as flat, just stick it out, and in no time you'll be on to Christopher Doyle's whackjob "Porte de Choisy," watching Barbet Schroeder shimmy around a kaleidoscopic Chinatown fashion show.
Does the dross outweigh the worthy? I think so, but it seems like the point of a sampler platter like this is to make up your own mind. I personally preferred Alfonso Cuaron indulging his fondness for scrolling sequence shots with Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier, Olivier Assayas indulging his fondness for mopeds in a drug-scoring anecdote that appears to take place on the set of "Marie Antoinette," Doyle's plain indulgence, and Isabel Coixet's evocation of Truffaut's breathless, omniscient narration. Caulking in the gaps you get an innocuous race-relations PSA from Gurinder Chadra, trifles from Gus van Sant and les freres Coen, a winsome live-action offering from "The Triplets of Belleville"'s Sylvain Chomet, Vincenzo Natali's crummy vampire miniature (come on, where's Jean Rollin?), and a worthless interval in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery, courtesy of Wes Craven.
After a closing-time actor's duet between Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara ("Quartier Latin") that isn't really bad per se (but cloying in that octogenarian-Groucho-singing-"Hello, I Must be Going"-at-Carnegie Hall sort of way), the capper comes from Alexander Payne, whose contribution has a redolence deeper than anything preceding. His "14eme Arrondissement" follows a stereotypical "ugly American," dumpy Denver letter carrier Carol (Margo Martindale), abroad in Paris, narrating her trip in comic, clunkily-accented French. Payne's deeply conflicted work, potently distilled to its essence here, has alternately been referred to as both very humane and very condescending; both analyses are reassuringly pat, and neither is quite true. He does have an uncanny ability to hone into discomfort zones, and his implication here - that a prosaic Midwestern lummox can understand the poetry of Paris as completely, and more profoundly, than maybe anyone else - paces itself perfectly, and is affecting in a most unexpected sort of way.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]