Juliette Binoche forsakes glamour yet still shines in the City of Light
By Bruce Bellingham
Like so many movies about Paris, the city tends to be the dominant player amid the characters.
This is true of Jean Luc Godard’s 1966 film, Two or Three Things I Know About Her. One might be led to believe that “her” is the beleaguered character who lives a double life, played by Marina Vlady. But it’s eventually clear that the real mystery and deception is provided by the beguiling city of Paris itself.
Cedric Klapsich’s new film, Paris, which is playing at the Embarcadero Cinema, pays homage to Godard. But Agnes Varda’s wonderful Cleo from 5 to 7 from 1962 might be closer to Klapsich’s story. In both movies, someone faces an uncertain future that will be determined by doctors and by Providence itself. The symbolism in the fact that Pierre (Romain Duris) may require a heart transplant cannot be lost on any of us.
There is a confluence of confused characters in both films, though Paris is the darker (as the world certainly has become over the past 47 years). The playfulness of the Varda film is missing. Today’s Paris is expensive, jobs are scarce, street demonstrations have lost their charm. All three movies could only take place in Paris, could only be painted on the ragtag Parisian canvas. Trying to define what Paris is all about is a theme in Klapsich’s movie, as it is in the other two.
One of the more intriguing characters in Paris is an aging history professor who can opine brilliantly about the city’s history and the ancient characters who have dwelt in it for centuries, yet cannot read the meaning of his own history. In a way, he’s seeking his own heart transplant. Enter a young student. In a hilarious scene, he demonstrates his prowess at text messaging in the parlance of kids. He reluctantly takes a job hosting a national TV show about Parisian history. He’s reluctant, that is, until he discovers how much they’ll pay him to do it. Being a tenured professor doesn’t look so attractive after that. Dignity be damned. Let the good times roll.
The professor, played terrifically well by Fabrice Luchini, provides a framework for the narrative through the poetry of Baudelaire. Paris … “has neither head nor tail … enormous cities with their incalculable interconnections.” The suggestion haunts the story, as do the stack of six million anonymous skulls and bones in the famous Paris catacombs that the professor shows his television audience. He’s overcome by the moment. Either history or the notion of mortality is getting the best of him.
Ah, but let’s finally get to Juliette Binoche – La Binoche, as my friend calls her. She plays Pierre’s sister, Elise, a social worker. Her heart, which is on her sleeve, has also taken a few blows now that she’s reached 40:
“Men don’t want women who talk back to them.”
Binoche simply dominates the screen, as usual. Her hair is a mess; she’s the consummate grown-up girl. Elise seems to have surrendered to a vague hopelessness but, like the city of Paris, she’s full of surprises. Why not? She’s caught up in the incalculable interconnections.
There’s a riveting story here in Paris, several actually. The actors are superb, not a hint of mawkishness in the performances. They should make more movies like this. Paris is playing at the Embarcadero Cinema through Oct. 8. If you miss it, get it on DVD.
Paris: runs 2 hours, 9 minutes; Embarcadero Cinema, One Embarcadero; 1:10 p.m., 4:05 p.m., 7 p.m., & 9:55 p.m.; 415-267-4893, www.landmarktheatres.com