18 films, 20 directors, one city. Here’s how it goes: the looser the theme, the more erratic this sort of portmanteau-picture usually is, and, as themes go, the entire French capital is about as baggy as the shorts of an American tourist checking out paintings in the Loo-verer. It’s no shock then that this collection of films about love in the City of the Light, each written and directed by a different filmmaker from Tom Tykwer to Walter Salles, is a hit-and-miss affair that offers more pains than delights. The producers originally wanted one film for each of the city’s 20 arrondissements, but when two contributions fell short, they instead titled each of the films according to its neighbourhood-setting, so giving us Gus Van Sant’s ‘Le Marais’, Gurinder Chadha’s ‘Quais de Seine’ etc, each packaged with saccharine linking-shots of fireworks and the Eiffel Tower. The saving grace is that each director has crafted a city-story in their own image rather than adopting a tourist’s view; the let-down is that the quality is so haphazard.
Which segments succeed? Of several American contributions, Steve Buscemi as a nervy tourist on the Metro in the Coen brothers’ ‘Tuileries’ is a hoot, while Alexander Payne’s ‘14th Arrondissement’ is a sweet subversion of the stereotype of the visitor to Europe. Other hits include Oliver Schmitz’s moving snippet of an injured immigrant looking for help and Gérard Depardieu and Frédéric Auburtin’s capturing of a tender conversation between almost-divorcees played by Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara. The misses range from the excruciating – Sylvain Chomet’s mime artist and Chris Doyle’s Chinatown tale – to those too reliant on gags and punchlines such as the contributions from Van Sant and Alfonso Cuarón. Isn’t it telling that so few French directors joined the party? With the Olympics coming, a similar spin on London must be looming.