In the generally deft new anthology film Paris je t'aime, short films are like streetcars. You don't like the looks of one, another will arrive shortly. For that matter, by the time you decide you don't like a film, it's over, as each of seventeen entries clocks in at approximately six minutes. The short length is a double-edged sword, of course, but most of the filmmakers wield it judiciously to create bite-sized stories.
The thread of the film is the City of Lights, inviting by day and positively glowing at night. Roaming around town, Paris je t'aime gives a sense of the diversity of the landscape, its denizens, and its tourists. Steve Buscemi plays one of the latter in the Coen Brothers' whimsical, hit-and-run segment, staged in the Tuileries Metro station. Alexander Payne looks at the serene flip side of tourist anxiety in his segment ("14th Arrondissement"), as a middle-aged Denver postwoman stiltedly orates her humble story of Gallic discovery. Each segment carries at least a whiff of the filmmakers' superior air and trademark snark, but the former in pursuit of all-out fun and the latter on the way to a grace note.
Part of the appeal of an anthology film is to see what a filmmaker can do with the film's inherent limitations, but also what they want to do with the rare opportunity. Gérard Depardieu & Frédéric Auburtin, for example, eagerly round up Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands for a pas de deux that transparently has a lot more to do with celebrating two legendary actors than providing the flavor of the Quartier Latin, but who's complaining? Vincenzo Natali (Cube) uses his "Quartier de la Madeleine" and leading actor Elijah Wood to tip his hat to Sin City while telling a bloody, tooth-in-cheek vampire tale. Alfonso Cuarón practices his single-shot tracking move (perfected in Children of Men) as he follows Ludivine Sagnier and Nick Nolte, from a safe distance, in "Parc Monceau."
With so little time to tell a story or make a point, the filmmakers sometimes lean on familiar forms but often throw caution to the wind. Lead-off segment "Montmartre" plays like the opening scene of a charming romantic comedy, Isabel Coixet's "Bastille" is a perfectly scaled tragicomic short story of found diaster averting relationship homicide, and Tom Tykwer's overdirected romance—with a screaming Natalie Portman—reminds that the director is talented but suggests he's played out. Though didactic, Walter Salles & Daniela Thomas' "Far From the 16th" has the button-down ambition of the pithiest lyric poetry (Gurinder Chadha's "Quais de Seine" tries a similar trick, but comes off flat-footed).
In the tossed rulebook category, we get Christopher Doyle's ill-advised, absurdist "Porte de Choisy," starring director Barbet Schroeder as a creepy salesman embracing the culture of a creepy Chinese hair salon. A different kind of stretch comes from Wes Craven, who awkwardly marries a thuddingly ineffective ghost story (apologies owed to Oscar Wilde) to an otherwise frisky romantic comedy between Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer.
Sometimes the distinctiveness of a piece simply reflects the confidence of an artist's well-developed, unbothered style. Such is the case with Gus Van Sant's "Le Marais," which is half gay romance, half cocktail-party story, and all relaxed auteurist command. The best photography may belong to Oliver Schmitz's unlikely but richly painted "Place des Fêtes," and though "Place des Victoires" by Nobuhiro Suwa unintentionally recalls David Lynch's 1988 comic short "The Cowboy and the Frenchman" with its collision of Juliette Binoche and a cowboy played by Willem Dafoe, Binoche carries the hasty melodrama over with sheer acting power.
Across the way from Suwa's cowboy is Sylvain Chomet's mime in "Tour Eiffel." The Triplets of Belleville filmmaker's cheeky fable goes straight to the Eiffel Tower, stripy-shirt, baguette stereotypes and goes to play. The overall effect of Paris je t'aime's cinematic bon bons is to fill up audiences with a sense of a great city's endless capacity for exploration. Travel agents, start your engines.