Sunday, June 24, 2007

la vie en rose et paris je t'aime

The summer movie slate is never very promising for me ("Live Free or Die Hard," anyone?), and if I go to the movies in the summer it's generally for the air conditioning. But so far this summer I've been twice and have seen two little jewels, each set in Paris, as well as previews during each one that have given me hope for smart summer films.

First I saw "La Vie En Rose," Olivier Dahan's biopic of Edith Piaf, which stars a bewitching Marion Cotillard. I think Piaf is marvelous, and Cotillard does a deft job of bringing her to life without seeming as though she is aping Piaf. The film is told out of order, which is its biggest detriment, and leaves out vital details, such as what hastens her premature death at 47.

Piaf's life was miserable — her father was a contortionist in the circus, her mother pursued an unrealized dream of becoming a famous singer, and these jobs led to their leaving Edith at her grandmother's whorehouse, where she suffered temporary blindness due to an eye infection. her adult life was no happier — she had a long, tragic affair with Marcel Cerdan, a middleweight boxer, who refused to l
eave his wife and family for her.

Though topically the film is grim, the acting is terrific, the music is beautiful, and Dahan's film resonates with Piaf fans long after they leave the theater.

The second film I saw was "Paris, Je T'Aime." The film consists of 18 segments shot by 18 different directors. The film was intended to have 20 vignettes — one for each arrondissement — but two fell through. "Paris" is the filmic equivalent of the short story collection — some vignettes were brilliant, others less so — yet all contributing to an anthology of love notes to the City of Light.

Directors include Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuarón, and Joel and Ethan Coen, but my favorite arrondissements belonged to Wes Craven and Isabel Coixet. Craven's segment, "Père-Lachaise" starred Emily Mortimer, Rufus Sewell and Alexander Payne, as, respectively, a young couple enjoying a pre-honeymoon, and one of the more flamboyant residents of the famous cemetery. The vignette is witty, touching, and captures something that first-time visitors to famous cities often feel — a sense of disbelief that one is actually at the place that one has dreamed for so long to visit.

arrondissement, "Bastille," narrated with an homage to film noir, starred Sergio Castellitto, Miranda Richardson, and Leonor Watling, as a man, his wife, and his mistress. "Bastille," not surprisingly, made tears well up in my eyes, and packed a punch in five minutes. Of all the vignettes, this was my favorite, since unlike a lot of the others, it was about more than a brief moment, and covered many heart-wrenching moments in a short period.

The final segment, "14e arrondissement," was directed by Alexander Payne and starred American actress Margo Martindale. The perfect note to end the film on, "14e" traces the one-week visit of an American letter carrier, who uses the opportunity to show off her French lessons. The section is narrated as though she is giving a French presentation, and is spot-on with its representation of awkward Americans abroad.

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