Often, it seems that the glories of the omnibus film are all but forgotten. Not only from the obvious standpoint of overwhelming variety in one movie -- variance in tone, mood, theme, directorial style -- but from the standpoint of introducing us to brilliant, interesting filmmakers whose contributions to the cinematic canon we've overlooked, virtually compelling us to chart out new viewing territory. At its best, an omnibus film can function as a giant, multicolored tapestry -- a byzantine mosaic where each tile tells its own resonant story. From a business standpoint, the reasons for the form's decline are simple -- they functioned as a clever way for opportunistic Euro megaproducers to reel in lucrative returns and massive prestige while doling out scant income for their participating directors. As the cinematic art of the '40s, '50s, '60s, and '70s yielded to the more lucrative Hollywood commercialism of the '80s, '90s, and beyond, this form faded slowly from view.
Paris, Je T'Aime -- an ode to the City of Lights engineered by executive producer Rafi Chaudry and directed by 18 international filmmakers, each given five to seven minutes to helm a segment set in and around Paris -- poses a direct challenge to this obsolescence, and recalls the film-à-sketch production style at its finest. Inevitably, not everything in the movie works -- in fact, far from it -- but, with one five-minute exception, the film never sinks below the level of engaging, moving, and genuinely interesting. Even when we see something that doesn't quite click, we're never bored. The directors featured herein include such varied voices as Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, Gus Van Sant, Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuarón, Joel and Ethan Coen, Alexander Payne, Nobuhiro Suwa, and Sylvain Chomet. Many tackle the shortened narrative form admirably and successfully, albeit with vastly different strategies. A few (such as the Coens, with their tale of a hapless, dorky American beaten senseless by a jealous boyfriend) tell a brief narrative with a full story arc; others (such as Payne, with his extraordinary glimpse of a geeky, middle-aged American postal worker, and her tourist's-eye view of Paris) etch out a character study and establish a perspective in a remarkably short period of time. And a few others seem content to catch a haunting behavioral insight that stays with us but resists an arc (such as Salles and Thomas, with their wondrous glimpse of a working-class Brazilian nanny's inchoate longings for her estranged infant). The latter delivers considerable emotional impact, thanks to the co-directors' faith in cinematic language; by merely fixing their camera on the nanny's gaze to an open Parisian window, we can visualize her thoughts and spirit wandering off to be with her baby.
The best of the lot, of course, improbably manage to accomplish all three goals in their brief window of time onscreen. Two feel particularly strong: one by Nobuhiro Suwa, another by Oliver Schmitz. The Suwa segment should go down as a classic, with its heartrending tale of a mother (Juliette Binoche) who loses her little boy, and is given one final chance to say goodbye to him, by a spirit on horseback (Willem Dafoe). And another, by Schmitz -- the tale of a homeless man and his final, deathbed meeting with the unsung love of his life -- feels supremely intransigent and ingeniously structured. These segments carry everything one looks for in a short film, or even in a motion picture per se -- to such an extent that an expansion of either would feel superfluous, if not ruinous.
Not all of the directors fare so well. A few seem crippled by the shortened running time; despite wondrous content while it is actually onscreen, Bruno Podalydès' opener feels cruelly truncated -- as if it is only the prologue to a tenderhearted, finely felt romance, whose lack of full development leaves us wanting so much more; Isabel Coixet uses heavy-handed voice-over narration to convey a melodramatic story that virtually demands its own full-length movie, with more character arcs and narrative twists than most two-hour features. But only one segment qualifies as a pure abomination: Chris Doyle's infuriatingly pretentious, incoherent avant-garde bit about an elderly eccentric (Barbet Schroeder) hawking salon products in an Asian district of Paris. Richard LaGravenese's sketch -- an homage to an old married couple -- threatens to become equally unintelligible but is saved, just barely, by the sheer pleasure of seeing Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant together onscreen.
The film's only other major lapse -- if it can be called that -- is simply the fact that many of the stories could ostensibly unfold anywhere. If they represent thematic variations on the various Parisian neighborhoods where they transpire, those connections are tenuous at best and will fall well outside the radar of most American viewers.
Overall, Paris, Je T'Aime represents a treasure chest that yields innumerable rich pleasures and not a few disappointments. And -- like the September 11 movie -- it should sound a wake-up call to resurrect the omnibus form on the basis of art, if not commerce.