City Lights 

A collection of Paris-centered short films offers an uplifting view of urban life.

Paris, Je T'aime (French for "Paris, I Love You") is described as "a collaborative film," and because of the high quality of its 18 short segments, shot by 22 directors in 18 different Parisian neighborhoods, it's much more than the scrapbook-style collection of sentimental imagery and trite storytelling you might suspect. Through its wide range of tones, places, faces, and tales, the film offers a remarkable, exhilarating vision of urban life.

Because of the large number of directors and actors involved in this project, none of the short films lasts more than a few minutes, and none of the stories are directly linked, even though there are two or three brief shots at the end of the film where characters from one story recognize characters from another story. Surprisingly, such strict spatial, temporal, and narrative limits invigorate many of the bigger-name filmmakers: The Coen brothers' darkly comic two-reeler, set in a Metro station and starring Steve Buscemi, is the most vibrant, exciting thing they've done in years. Wes Craven's short, set in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, is the best-looking segment of the bunch, and it's also one of the most whimsical; it's a romantic short about a humorless man's encounter with the ghost of Oscar Wilde.

Other filmmakers contribute their usual excellent work: Alfonso Cuaron's graceful, single-take evening stroll with Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier offers an antidote to the poisonous dystopia he envisioned in Children of Men, while art-house favorite Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Clean), whose main subject is the mixing of cultures, nations, and languages in our new global village, presents another relaxed, sad portrait of a woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal, superbly naturalistic and effortless, as always) adrift in an unfamiliar locale. Only Sylvain Chomet's excruciating tale of two mimes in love and Christopher Doyle's avant-garde hairstylist fantasy are less than compelling.

As this symphony of a city moves from arrondissement to arrondissement, the film takes shape as a meditation on the ways in which urban anonymity creates opportunities for reinvention. Some residents, like Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant in the "Pigalle" section, wander the streets at night, trying on new identities in an attempt to reawaken their old selves; others, like Catalina Sandino Moreno's nanny in the poignant working-class vignette "Loin du 16ème," won't quite let their bland, thankless supporting roles entrap them. Accidents, collisions, and sudden memories also offer chances for personal and spiritual renewal.

In a lovely touch, a homely, middle-aged American tourist (Margo Martindale) best expresses not only Paris' sense of possibility and excitement but the possibility and excitement promised by all foreign travel. Her segment, written and directed by Alexander Payne, starts out as a joke about simple-minded sightseers before blossoming into a deeply moving comment about the unlikely roots that world travelers unearth when visiting new places. As she sits on a Parisian park bench, Martindale (in impeccably bad, honking Yankee French) says, "I felt, at the same time, joy and sadness. But not too much sadness, because I felt alive." At its frequent best, Paris, Je T'aime inspires the same response.

Paris, Je T'aime

Opens Friday, August 3rd

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