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All contents © 2009
by Mark Jenkins,
unless otherwise noted.

Original design by Smallpark


SEPT. 27, 2009

City of Lite

Writer-director Cédric Klapisch's tour of Paris is engaging and graceful, if unsurprising. Surrogates pretends to condemn Hollywood pretense.

By Mark Jenkins

Also opening in D.C. this week, a film I reviewed for NPR: THE BOYS ARE BACK.

PARIS, SARTRE MIGHT HAVE GRUMBLED, is other people. Certainly that's true of Cédric Klapisch's Paris, the latest ensemble piece from the writer-director of While the Cat's Away (set mostly in the Bastille neighborhood) and L'Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls (which are substantially more global in reach). Although the movie sometimes highlights the city's specific geography, its story could be set anywhere — or at least anywhere where Gallic attitudes toward life, love, and work prevail.

Charming if hardly profound, Paris never surprises the way While the Cat's Away did. Klapisch has settled into a happy groove, as his casting suggests. Not only is this the director's sixth film with feral-looking actor Romain Duris, but the other major players are such high-profile members of the French cinematic repertory company as Juliette Binoche, Fabrice Luchini, and Franc¸la;ois Cluzet (star of Tell No One, one of French cinema's biggest U.S. hits since, well, L'Auberge Espagnole). Luchini even takes roughly the same part he had earlier this year in Girl from Monaco: a foolish older intellectual besotted with a sexy young woman. But this film is set in the real world, not Monaco, so the relationship's tone (and outcome) is less hysterical.

An opening montage introduces the characters, without distinguishing between the major and minor ones. History professor Roland (Luchini) stands atop the Eiffel Tower, cabaret dancer Pierre (Duris) works on a routine, and unmarried social worker Elise (Binoche) goes shopping with her two of her three kids. Along with glimpses of such Parisian institutions as the Métro and a fashion show, the sequence also depicts divorced food-market co-workers Jean (Albert Dupontel) and Caroline (Julie Ferrier), Franco-Arab bakery clerk Khadija (Sabrina Ouazani), and would-be Parisian Mourad (Zinedine Soualem), seen strolling through his dusty Cameroon hometown. But unlike Claire Denis's 36 Shots of Rum, set in a Paris where darker complexions are taken for granted, Klapisch's film never fully integrates its working-class or African-rooted characters.

The story includes multiple romantic connections, most of them casual. The crucial links are familial, and deepened by crisis: Elise become closer to Pierre, her younger brother, when she learns his heart is failing. Detached Roland and his emotional younger brother Philippe (Cluzet), an architect, play their familiar roles at their father's funeral, only to discover over time that Roland is more affected by dad's death.

Elise and her children move in with Pierre, and she tries to entertain her brother by a throwing a party and seeking potential sex partners for him. She even investigates the romantic status of his current crush, a beautiful student who lives across the street. Laetitia (Inglorious Basterds's avenging angel Mélanie Laurent) says she doesn't have a boyfriend, but that's not true. In fact, she's might have two, if she takes up with her professor, Roland. The older man's fixation on Laetitia is meant to be a sign of his suppressed grief, although a breakdown is hardly necessary for a middle-aged man to be attracted to a younger woman. (See, for example, Girl from Monaco.)

The major characters overlap with minor ones where you'd expect: at the local street market, on the Métro, and at a nearby boulangerie whose tart, oh-so-Parisienne proprietor (Karin Viard) has strong opinions about which geographical types to employ. (Both Bretons and sub-Saharan Africans are trouble, she opines.) Some of the secondary figures expand the film's view, but Klapisch is offhand with two of them: Caroline is casually eliminated — although not so she can provide a heart for Pierre, which is surely what would happen in Hollywood's version — and Mourad makes the harrowing Mediterranean crossing only to discover that the director has lost interest in him.

Playfully, Klapisch fills Paris with people who are lecturing on its character, including Roland himself, who takes a well-paid gig hosting a popular history of the city for French TV. The director even plays tour guide, staging one three-way edit that puts characters atop the city's highest points: the Eiffel Tower, the Montparnasse Tower, and Sacre Coeur. But another whimsical touch, a dream that puts Phillippe inside a 3D animation of the banal modernist development he's designing, is too obvious.

Some of the slyness of Klapisch's earlier work has been lost, and the presence of big stars doesn't compensate. But Paris is brilliantly constructed, with cross-cut anecdotes illustrating its everyday-life and random-death themes. Stories are twinned, echoing each other from kindred situations or locations — or films. (In one scene, Pierre takes a cab ride through While the Cat's Away's' hood.) The music ranges with the geography, from Satie and trip-hop to rockabilly and French hardcore-punk. The occasional detours from tourist-friendly precincts, notably to Cameroon and the massive wholesale food market at Rungis, aren't enough to render Paris revelatory. But the film's graceful storytelling is as enchanting as the city views that Klapisch, in one of his final vignettes, admits are the stuff of picture postcards.

PARIS — 2008, 129 min; at Landmark E Street.

ANOTHER HALF-HEARTED HOLLYWOOD CONDEMNATION of artificial/virtual living, Surrogates stands up for people, but doesn't really mean it. Bruce Willis plays a FBI agent in some tomorrowland, when only a few eccentrics move around the world — or at least Boston — in their actual bodies. Most humans are homebound, interacting with others via their android surrogates. This makes sense for soldiers, or FBI agents, but less so for people who aren't in regular physical danger. (Or, for that matter, those simply enjoy sunshine, breezes, and other basic sensory pleasures.) The stand-ins do have an advantage other than near-indestructibility: They look great, in a Bloomie's mannequin sort of way. So the fake Greer (Willis) has smooth, pink cheeks and a full head of blond hair, while his replicant wife (Rosamund Pike) lacks the scars her real body retains from the car crash that killed their son.

The plot involves a new weapon that can blow through a surrogate's electro-psychic defenses and do something that's supposed to be impossible: kill the person whose thoughts control the "surry." Greer doggedly tracks this menace to its source, even after he's taken off the case and must — in a touch that should have been funnier than it is — relinquish not only his gun and badge but also his robo-body. Working the case in his "meatbag," he's almost the only human on the streets. The principal giggle in this is that the surrogates, whose synthetic perfection is supposed to be creepy, actually embody the values of botoxed, CGI-addicted Hollywood. At the Surrogates screening, the movie was preceded by a trailer for Bob Zemeckis's upcoming A Christmas Carol, which uses the same motion-capture technique as his The Polar Express. Now that would be scary — a lone meatbag cop facing the dead-eyed kiddie surrogates who made The Polar Express look like an inadvertent sequel to Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.

SURROGATES — 2009, 89 min; at megaplexes everywhere.