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City of Light: Paris

Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris in Paris.

Robert Altman didn’t really invent the genre, but he did it the best, and so we now call these films “Altmanesque”: Over the course of two hours or so, we dip into the lives of various people who may have no more connection to each other than the place where the film is set.

Place is important to the French filmmaker Cedric Klapisch, who has done several films with this structure: When the Cat’s Away, about a young woman living in Montmarte who gets to know here neighborhood when she looks for her lost cat; L’auberge espagnole (a.k.a. The Spanish Apartment, a local arthouse hit in 2003), about the experiences of a French student in an overcrowded international dorm in Lisbon.

Klapisch embraces the structure more openly with Paris, a movie that presents that city through the eyes and lives of a dozen or so of its current inhabitants.

At the center is Klapisch’s usual star Romain Duris (you may also remember him from The Beat That My Heart Skipped). He plays a young dancer who learns that he has advanced heart disease. A transplant is his only chance for survival: In the meantime, he must lead a much more sedate life than he is used to. This breeds a habit of inquisitiveness and reflection in him, and the film’s other characters are seen (literally or metaphorically) through his eyes.

There is his sister Élise (Juliette Binoche, as usual reason enough to see any film she’s in). A social worker and single mother, she has reached the age of 40 with rather less aplomb than she professes.

She has an eye for Jean (Albert Dupontel), who works at a local outdoor produce market, With his co-workers Jean pretends to be flirtatious with his customers, though in reality he is bothered by working with his ex-wife (Julie Ferrier), who is more direct about looking for his sexual replacement.

There is also Roland (Fabrice Luchini), a fiftyish history professor who can’t help but feel that his profession is filled with people repeating the same dead facts over and over to each other. He hates the standard argument that old cities like Paris are defined by an ongoing struggle between the old and the new. He is also thunderstruck by a pretty young student (Mélanie Laurent), to whom he sends flirtatious text messages.

Who am I forgetting…there’s Roland’s brother Phillippe (Francois Cluzet), a well-adjusted architect until his Roland’s grousing breeds self-doubt within him (leading to a funny dream sequence in which his buildings all fail to come out according to plan). Most distant is Benoit (Kingsley Kum Abang), who wants to emigrate to France from Cameroon. And at the center of it is the owner of the local bakery (Karin Viard), who spreads gossip while complaining about her employees who never manage to live up to her standards,

I’m probably forgetting some, but you get the idea, and if you don’t there’s a fairly unsubtle ending to make the point: Life is what happens while you’re worrying about something else. I tried to sketch out most of the characters because it’s not always easy to follow them, and more than a few of them vanish from the film well before we’ve exhausted our curiosity in them. This kind of filmmaking may strike some viewers as a lazy way of tying up a lot of undeveloped story ideas. I prefer to appreciate Klapisch’s skill to make us interested in them through the sometimes brief sketches he allocates to them.

And of course, you get to see more of Paris than you would on a two-week vacation, which you probably couldn’t afford anyway.

Watch the trailer for Paris

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