No modern comedy group has shown as much commitment to resurrecting the spirit of classic slapstick than Brussels-based husband-and-wife comedy duo Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon. They have performed for decades, but only brought their talents into feature-length filmmaking in the last 10 years, with films like the wordless “Rumba” and “The Fairy” showcasing their commitment to a humor otherwise absent from contemporary cinema. Their lanky figures are ideal vessels for deadpan visuals that mine territory ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Jacques Tati. “Lost in Paris,” their fourth effort (and first without co-director Bruno Romy), continues that earnest commitment to the genre by tapping into the material’s appeal without reinventing it.
Abel and Gordon have yet to produce a full-bodied work with more originality than references, and “Lost in Paris” doesn’t move the needle in that regard. But it’s another charming doodle that does justice to their brand of studied humor. The pair blends storybook visuals with a stream of clever gags and oodles of pathos to deliver an infectious romance almost too eager to please at every turn.
While the appearance of French screen legend Emmanuelle Riva in a supporting role suggests the filmmakers are moving beyond their own antics, “Lost in Paris” predominantly belongs to Abel and Gordon, once again playing would-be lovers in an eccentric story filled with bizarre turns. It starts with Fiona (per usual, the couple uses their real names) living in a remote, frozen region of northern Canada that looks like something out of Wes Anderson’s toychest, where the wind blows all the locals around the room whenever someone opens the door. It’s here that she receives a desperate note from her senile Aunt Martha (Riva), complaining that a nurse has been attempting to lock her away in a retirement home. On a whim, Fiona heads to Paris — all it takes is a gentle push out of the snowy frame from one of her peers, and she’s arrived in the big city — and promptly falls into the conundrum of the title.
Fiona’s a walking punchline from the moment she gets to town, wandering the streets with an oversized red backpack sporting a tiny Canadian flag, but the humor turns melancholic when she finds her aunt’s apartment empty and she has nowhere to go. Things only get worse: she tumbles into the Seine on more than one occasion, loses her passport and her cash, and gains a pesky stalker in the process. That would be Dom (Abel), a Chaplinesque tramp who lives by the river and instantly falls for Fiona after he comes across her missing belongings. But even after offering his assistance to find her missing aunt, she’s mortified by his grimy, streetwise ways, although his persistence pays off.
“Lost in Paris” becomes a gentle romance about awkward loners with a shared tendency for disaster-prone antics, but the flimsy plot of “Lost in Paris” provides an excuse for Abel and Gordon to unleash their visual humor, which at best mimics Tati’s ability to turn the surrounding environment into a character itself. The couple’s initial courtship begins in one of the more prolonged and effective sequences, a clumsy pas de deux at a seaside restaurant where blaring music causes everyone in the room to bounce together to the same beat. Elsewhere, tangents include the disastrous effect of a wayward fishing line, and a cigarette that burns through a newspaper to create a peephole as Dom spies on Abel at a diner. There’s also a few moments of terrific comic suspense, including the threat of an incinerator and a wayward ladder at the top of the Eiffel Tower. No matter its wandering trajectory, “Lost in Paris” remains unpredictable until the bittersweet end.
Riva, meanwhile, lands a few nice moments as she wanders in and out of the story, finding romance of her own and causing trouble with a naughty smirk — a world away from her masterful, late-period turn in “Amour.” But she’s generally more of a prop than a full-fledged character, and the movie doesn’t give her much in the way of substance. (Her best scene, a tap dance bit with a former flame, seems to have involved a body double.) Yet Riva’s character, at once a bundle of confused senility and eager to stir up trouble as she wanders the streets, at least makes sense within the confines of this lightweight story. “Lost in Paris” struggles more with maintaining the wacky logic of its two leads, particularly as it relates to Fiona’s developing attraction to Dom despite his constant missteps.
Abel and Gordon are much better at prolonged jokey setups than narrative coherence, but that speaks to the pastiche they’re committed to offering. Notably, “Lost in Paris” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival at the same time as “La La Land,” a sugary nostalgia trip that salutes antiquated musicals in much the same way that “Lost in Paris” pays tribute to another discarded genre.
While “La La Land” recreates the spectacular canvas of classic Hollywood productions, “Lost in Paris” operates on a more restrained scale. The filmmakers use obvious green screen effects, and swap fancy camerawork for clever angles and playful choreography. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Abel and Gordon keep turning it with their own intimate touch.
“Lost in Paris” premiered at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival. Oscilloscope Laboratories will release it theatrically in 2017.