Lest Irma Vep give the impression that young French filmmakers can only be fresh and free on the subject of cinema itself, here comes When the Cat’s Away, a film about, well, life. Like Benoît Jacquot’s A Single Girl, Cédric Klapisch’s film focuses on a young woman in Paris, but a closer relation would actually be Claire Denis’ intimate yet kaleidoscopic I Can’t Sleep. Both films’ central characters serve primarily as portals to enter entire neighborhoods.

Like Irma Vep, When the Cat’s Away was partially improvised and shot quickly in a quasi-documentary style. Originally conceived as a short, the film is based on an anecdote a friend told writer/director Klapisch: She had gone on vacation, leaving her cat with Madame Renée, an old woman who presides over an apartment full of cats in the Bastille neighborhood, a long-shabby area recently in the throes of gentrification. While the woman was gone, her pet ran away; when the vacationer returned, Madame Renée and her friends formed a search party for the cat.

In Klapisch’s fictionalization of the story, Madame Renée (Renée Le Calm) and other neighborhood fixtures play themselves. The woman has become thin, sad-eyed Chloé (Garance Clavel) and the cat Gris-Gris (played by Clavel’s cat, Arapimou). Taking a break from her job as a makeup stylist for fashion shoots—home to Jean-Paul Gaultier’s showroom, the Bastille is a fledgling fashion center—quiet, lonely Chloé arranges a solitary beach vacation that Klapisch wryly allows to last for only a few seconds onscreen. Then she returns, and the search for Gris-Gris begins.

The real quest is not for the cat, however, but for community. Prowling the streets in search of Gris-Gris, Chloé infiltrates various demimondes that she previously had merely skirted. Through Renée and her friends, Chloé discovers the neighborhood’s longtime residents, who hang onto their apartments as the useful, familiar shops on the local streets are replaced by boutiques whose contents (and prices) mystify them. She also meets representatives of the local Arab community, in particular sweet-natured, slightly slow-witted Jamel (Zinedine Soualem), who makes the search for Gris-Gris his obsession.

Before the dragnet begins, Chloé’s only friends are Gris-Gris and her acerbic gay roommate, Michel (actor, playwright, and theater director Olivier Py). While searching for her cat, however, Chloé encounters a wealth of erotic possibilities: Jamel has a crush on her, of course, and she also gets walked home by the lesbian bartender who protected her from an overeager barroom stud, as well as finally meeting the sexy drummer she’s been eyeing (and hearing) for months. None of these encounters guarantee romance, however. When the Cat’s Away is just not the sort of movie that means to solve all its protagonist’s problems: Chloé remains lonesome, and her neighbors are still being evicted all around her. Continuing to search for Gris-Gris is the biggest commitment to Chloé’s happiness Klapisch is prepared to make.

The film’s Paris is not the one that’s carefully scrubbed for tourists, but neither is it the suburban wasteland that holds many of the area’s African and Arab residents. As in any real city, kindness and hostility rub shoulders at the same bus stop. Chloé comes to appreciate Renée and her friends, who even get to belt a nostalgic round of “Paris, Queen of the World” in a local bar. When she first arrives at the woman’s apartment, though, she finds “Fuck the Old Bag” spray-painted on the door.

This, in short, is a celebration but not a glorification. Michel, for example, at first seems the stereotypical gay grouch with a heart of a gold, but as the story progresses he become more faceted (if not necessarily more likable). So too Chloé’s loneliness, which begins as an inexplicable affliction but gradually comes to appear somewhat her own responsibility. (She’s as busy hitting on the wrong people as the wrong people are hitting on her.)

Still, Chloé, Michel, Renée, and Gris-Gris are all minor characters next to the neighborhood itself, which is full of characters that make an indelible impression in one or two fleeting appearances. In giving these players their due, Klapisch maintains a canny balance between serendipity and script, sociology and shtick. When the Cat’s Away offers a formula for funny, warm, freewheeling filmmaking, but also for urban life itself: Set a realistic goal, but don’t close your eyes to the unexpected possibilities all around you.

To Europeans boldly adapting an ancient Middle Eastern religion, Jerusalem has sometimes served as a physical destination, other times as a metaphor. William Blake found his new Jerusalem in Britain’s green and pleasant land, and the late-19th-century religious cultists of Bille August’s Jerusalem temporarily locate it on a farm in a rural region of Sweden. Ultimately, though, they head for the actual Jerusalem, a move that makes geographically explicit the rupture in the once closely knit community of Ingmargaden. It’s a rift that parallels the one between the story’s two principal characters, Ingmar (Ulf Friberg) and Gertrud (Maria Bonnevie).

Adapted by writer/director August from a book by Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman ever to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Jerusalem is a story of Nordic repression contrasted with utopian rapture. First the repression: Ingmar’s father dies heroically when the boy, his namesake, is only about 6. On his deathbed, the older Ingmar commands his grown daughter Karin (Pernilla August, the director’s wife) to hold the family farm and fortune in trust for his only son. But Karin’s drunkard husband Eljas (Johan Rabaeus) steals the money and dies before telling anyone where he hid it. Then Karin marries Tim (Reine Brynolfsson), and they take control of the farm while Ingmar goes to live with Storm (Björn Granath) and his family.

The boy promised his dying father to work the farm and guide the people of Ingmargaden, but upon reaching adulthood Ingmar declines—whether from pride, nobility, or simple reticence—to claim the farm as his birthright. Instead, the stiffly principled young man decides to use the other family asset, a remote sawmill, to build a new fortune that will enable him to marry his childhood pal Gertrud, Storm’s daughter and the town’s foremost young beauty.

Now the rapture: While Ingmar attempts to live by the village’s traditional code, millennial winds are blowing. The century will soon end, and some of the villagers believe that human life on Earth will conclude with it. The official Swedish state church is under siege, to the consternation of both Storm and the local vicar (Max von Sydow, whose cameo offers Ingmar Bergman’s implicit blessing). The threat is embodied by Hellgum (Sven-Bertil Taube), an itinerant preacher and faith healer who once lived in Ingmargaden but more recently joined a Chicago-based cult whose members are mostly Swedish immigrants.

Winning Karin and Tim as early converts, Hellgum converts the farm to a commune called Jerusalem. Just as significantly to Ingmar, the preacher recruits Gertrud, who’s desperately lonely and prone to religious visions since Ingmar moved to the distant sawmill. When the cult decides to join the Chicagoans, who have already moved to Palestine to prepare for the end of the world, Ingmar is presented with an opportunity. A wealthy man buys the farm as a dowry for his daughter Barbro (Lena Endre). Choosing duty over love, Ingmar marries Barbro, thus guaranteeing that Gertrud will join Hellgum’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It’s an arrangement that seems certain to bring more unhappiness to Ingmar and Gertrud, as well as to Barbro, who’s tormented by the prospect of a loveless marriage and her unshakable belief that she is doomed to bear blind, retarded children.

Partially financed by Swedish TV but first released as a film, the three-hour Jerusalem is very much in the stately, naturalistic mode of The Best Intentions and Pelle the Conqueror, August’s previous Scandinavian family epics. If the movie lacks the spirit of the director’s coming-of-age tale, Twist and Shout, it’s still much preferable to his international co-production disasters, The House of the Spirits and Smilla’s Sense of Snow. August was born and raised in Denmark, but he’s entirely at home with Swedish dynastic sagas (if not with Chilean ones).

Although elegantly shot by longtime August collaborator Jörgen Persson, Jerusalem is sometimes stodgy and overly familiar: The director has devised no new vocabulary to convey the harshness of life, work, and childbirth in rural northern climes, and he’s certainly not Bergman’s ideal successor at rendering mystical visions on film. Both visually and narratively, the film benefits from the cultists’ move to Palestine. Beyond the simple opposition of heat and cold, dry and wet, the film draws its most expressive moments from the Swedes’ various reactions to the strangeness of the long-idealized promised land. Tim, for example, finds his faith damaged, while Karin’s is strengthened. Most powerfully, Ingmar manages to demonstrate to the ecstatically deluded Gertrud that Jerusalem’s mystic tradition is utterly incompatible with her childlike notions of a peaceable kingdom. It’s a kindness she can never forgive.CP