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Christophe Honoré's Dans Paris will be a tonic for anyone who feels that French cinema has broken faith with La nouvelle vague and settled into comfy, American-style narrative. (Or classic French farce.) Without indulging experimentalism for its own sake, or lapsing into incoherence, Dans Paris uses the New Wave's toolbox to probe a family's life so intimately that you may fear that your nostrils are about to be assaulted by the odor of unwashed laundry. We're talking about three men living together.
Once upon a time, they were part of a family of five, with a mother and a sister. But the sister fell into depression and killed herself, and the mother found a new boyfriend. There's a good deal of evidence that the parents quarreled over how to deal with Claire's depression - maman (Marie-France Pisier) for medication; papa (Guy Marchand) against - because they seem to repeat the old discussion vis-à-vis Paul, their elder son (Romain Duris). It is 23 December - all the action but for a few flashbacks takes place on this day - and the mother has stopped by to see what she can do with Paul, who is rotting with depression in his brother's bedroom.
The flashbacks, all at the beginning of the film, show us the last days of Paul's relationship with Anna (Joana Preiss) - the last days for the time being, that is. This on-again, off-again relationship is not studied by the film, but the air of a "difficult" relationship is effectively conveyed. Paul and Anna are probably not the best people for each other; it may be that simple. Interestingly, the scene in which Paul packs his bags and storms out is omitted, probably because he passively-aggressively forced Anna to do the breaking up, before limping back to his father's flat in Paris and displacing his brother, Jonathan (Louis Garrel) to the living room sofa-bed.
The film begins in Jonathan's room. There are three people in his bed. A young man flanked by another man and a young woman. Yes! This is a foreign movie! Well, once upon a time, it would have been shocking. Will it spoils things if I tell you that sexual escapades did not precede the sleep from which Jonathan is awakening? In any case, he gets out of bed, dons a pullover, and walks through the flat (removing a cigarette from his sleeping father's lips and kissing him on the forehead - this is a family where people mean well) and proceeds onto the balcony, where we can be alone. He turns to the camera and makes a few clever, cryptic remarks, of which the last is very sad. If he had only made more of an effort to show Paul how much he loves his brother, then Paul wouldn't have gone off with Anna. Later, we'll see that he thinks he might have staved off Paul's depression. He would have been too young, twelve years ago, to have learned much from Claire's suicide. We'll also learn that the film begins on the morning of Christmas Eve: most of the action took place yesterday.
Very briefly: the day alternates scenes of Paul's depressive disengagements with scenes of Jonathan's lark. Jonathan wants Paul to show him the lights at the Bon Marché, just as he did when Jonathan was little. To get rid of him, Paul agrees, but only if Jonathan gets to the store within half an hour, on foot. After a promising beginning, Jonathan is diverted by one, two, and finally three ladies - one of them an ex to whom he owes three thousand Euros - with all of whom he goes to bed. (These scenes are very discreet.)
Meanwhile, back at the flat, Mom comes to see what she can do, and Paul makes a frightening disclosure to his father. The ex-girlfriend, Alice (Alice Butaud), shows up and decides to wait for Jonathan. Paul and Anna have a telephone conversation that presently goes into singing mode. When Jonathan does get home, she's asleep on the couch, so he goes into his own room and has a natter with his brother. The last scene is of the back of the brothers' heads as they look toward the door, at which Alice has just knocked.
For a film so centered on one characters depression, Dans Paris is a surprisingly lighthearted film. Mr Honoré is interested in showing us what his characters are like and how they show their feelings to one another, but he couldn't care less what anyone does for a living. Mirko, the father, lives on a pension, but we don't know what he did in his prime. Jonathan is supposed to be going to school. Paul has a lot of camera equipment, but so do lots of people who aren't professional photographers. Anna may be in entertainment somehow. Alice, like Jonathan, lives at home; she doesn't want her mother to know that she's sleeping with Jonathan.
What might have been a forceful cinematic unity in the playing out of that day in the family's life is unsettled by the initial flashbacks, which may not be shown in chronological order - we don't know. The sense of linearity is further challenged by the fact that both Paul and his father are usually wearing pyjamas or underwear; time of day is not firmly established. The dingue aspect of Jonathan's trip to the Bon Marché is somewhat anti-realistic. By the evening, though, we have figured things out, and the effort brings us deeply into the film.
Guy Marchand turns in a marvelous performance as a man whose sense of fatherhood is clouded by the bewilderment of dealing with a second child's depression. He barks, he growls, he shrugs - he hardly ever smiles - but it's obvious that he loves his sons, and just as obvious that they know it. Marie-France Pisier, once one of the most glamorous of French actresses, gives the mother a somewhat earthy, blasé air that suggests that the men may be better off without her daily presence. Louis Garrel manages to be antic even when he's asleep - his character may not be (as he tell us at the start) the "hero" - but his is the movie's pulse. The most surprising performance, however, is the least surprising, because Romain Duris always surprises. What's new here is that he quite often looks like some default bearded French guy, not the intense star of De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté. There were also scenes in which I had a premonistion of what the actor will look like in middle age.
Paul and Jonathan, as brothers go, are very unalike - as, indeed, are Mr Duris and Mr Garrel - but they share one tic: the move on right after sex. Anna picks a nasty fight with Paul for this reason, and Alice pesters Jonathan while he reads Franny and Zooey. Salinger's novel is an influence not shared by Godard or Truffaut. (August 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press