Written & Directed by: Christophe Honoré
When you see Roman Duris staring directly into the camera at the start of Dans Paris (the third movie of the summer about Paris, set in Paris and with "Paris" in the title), it's easy, while considering the film's French origins, to assume with heavy heart that this is going to be one of those movies, one of those smarmy post-modern vehicles Americans expect to drift across the pond and into arthouses now and again. And, just past the opening credits, director Christophe Honoré does little to dissuade those initial misgivings, as Louis Garrel hops out of his bed, leaving his brother (Duris) and an anonymous girl behind, to take us out to the balcony, where the Eiffel Tower in its disagreeable majesty is visible in the distance, for the purposes of introducing the film with a measure of privacy.
Having previously seen Garrel in Bertolucci's The Dreamers, the sight him as one of three people in a mixed-sexes bed inevitably leads one to suspect that perversity must be afoot. But Dans Paris has no such depravity up its sleeve, only winning, self-conscious playfulness used to subtly obscure a deep emotional core. In fact, its knowing, European style is endearingly enthusiastic, played with a straight-face and a knowing wink; the funny thing about the film is that, while it puts its quirky Nouvelle Vague gimmicks on prominent display (eg. dialogue played over still-lipped characters, unprovoked musical sequences, etc.), it's not unapologetic about it. In the aforementioned prefatory scene, Louis Garrel is immediately contrite about having resorted to direct address, and promises to "turn back into a character" once he is through providing some sort of preamble. (For the most part he does, though he returns, occasionally, in his capacity as omniscient narrator to comment on the story or criticize the way it's being presented.) Garrel is as charismatic as Ferris Bueller, and from the start he has the audience's permission to speak into the screen as much as he'd like to.
Evidenced by the ambivalence to his own flashy style, Honoré is trying to have his cake and eat it too, as he unabashedly uses the exuberant film techniques of his Gallic cinematic forefathers, while simultaneously declaring himself avowedly au courant and independent of such oppressive influence. Remarkably, he succeeds in balancing the two, as he apes an obsolete style without appearing tiresomely derivative. For example, there's a running "cool jazz" soundtrack and a marvelous musical sequence, "Avant la Haine", that vaguely recalls Le Parapluies de Cherbourg (at least it did for me, specifically in the vocal timbres) or something out of Une Femme est Une Femme; both, among other factors, can't help but evoke le cinema of the late '50s/early '60s that emanated out of France, but at the same time, loud, modern indie-rock blares in other scenes, announcing Dans Paris' contemporariness. In perhaps the best example, Garrel chastises a young girl who calls a kiss they share "nifty", a clear American-Fifties logism that Honore nevertheless revels in indulging in. "No one says nifty anymore," Garrel instructs, providing a list of acceptable and more up-to-date synonyms.
Although the title translates to In Paris (or, Inside Paris, as the distributors claim), the movie ironically begins in the French countryside, where Duris, in flashbacks, is seen in a series of miserable though exhilarating vignettes charting the course of love lost, the dissolution of a romantic partnership. It's a highlight reel of lovers-quarrels with a surfeit of penetrating insights, bitter jealousy and paranoid despair. Then, as promised by the title, the film relocates to Paris, but the city doesn't seem as gay as its sobriquet promises; Duris, now with a becomingly bushy beard, is lethargic and depressed, nursing his broken heart—his baby done gone—with starvation, morose melancholia and half-hearted prayer in his father's cramped flat. His lack of energy, however, is contrasted in the giddiness of his overgrown adolescent brother, Garrel; set over the course of a day, the narrative forks as Duris stays home and deals with his overbearing father while Garrel bounces around the city, taking in lovers and serving, unconsciously, as our tour guide through the street beauty of France's capital.
In the bed of one, of three, of his day's conquests, Garrel is seen reading copy of Franny et Zooey, and it ought to become clear to the viewer at this point, if it hasn't already, that Dans Paris plays out like a loose adaptation of that novella pair, though with most of the gender roles intriguingly reversed. The film follows Salinger's famous book like O Brother, Where Are Thou? follows The Odyssey—loosely and to a tee, right down to a climactic phone call and an obsession with repetitive prayer. Bessie Glass' domineering but well-intentioned matriarch is replaced by Guy Marchand's characteristically identical patriarch, while Duris takes on the role of Franny, replacing her religious dilemma, her crisis of the soul, with a romantic dilemma, a crisis purely of the heart.
The narrator of Zooey writes of the story to follow that, "it's a compound, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated"; it's no coincidence, then, that Dans Paris is the same, a romance that challenges the fortitude of various sexual and familial bonds; or, a portrait of a splintered family-unit damaged by the years-earlier loss of a suicided sibling, masquerading as a peppy day in the amorous lives of two French brothers. Dans Paris is alternately, even sometimes simultaneously, superficial and moving, hip and meaningful, shiny and full of pathos. Deceptively, it goes down in a flash, easy and breezy, but its complexity, optimism and joie de cinema linger.