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Anyone who wants to identify the day that European art cinema died might look to July 30, when both Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni expired. Yet despite their passing, and despite the small American audience for foreign-language movies, European film remains vital. If there is no new Bergman, there are plenty of wannabe Godards who delight in how film can construct and deconstruct at the same time. This week’s example—which has been booked at the E Street Cinema for a mere week—is Christophe Honoré’s Dans Paris, an unexpectedly warm and antic romp from the writer-director of 2004’s stridently kinky Ma Mère.
Given that film’s three- (and more) ways, Dans Paris’ opening scene is a little familiar. A young man named Jonathan, played by Ma Mère’s Louis Garrel, awakes between a woman and another man. But it’s not what you think. Jonathan slips out of bed and begins to chatter, speaking directly to the camera. The story the film will tell, he explains, is “horribly personal,” but he’s not the hero. “So I give myself the right to be the narrator.”
The film’s central character is the other man in the bed, Paul (Romain Duris, who usually plays men of action, here cast against type). Jonathan’s older brother, Paul has recently split from his lover Anna (Joanna Preiss, who was also in Ma Mère). The latest break may not be permanent—the two seem destructively devoted to each other—but for now Anna lives in a small town with her son, and Paul is in Jonathan’s bed. He’s commandeered his brother’s room and refuses to leave, or do much of anything else. Jonathan, an indifferent college student, is serving as the intermediary between Paul and their father. Mom left years ago, in the aftermath of the suicide of Paul and Jonathan’s beloved 17-year-old sister.
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So Dans Paris is a film about family, grief, depression, and suicide, which does sound a bit like Bergman (not to mention Ma Mère). Yet if Jonathan is not the film’s hero, he is its animating spirit, and he’s not despondent. Honoré flashes back and forward with vigor and grace—it turns out that the opening scene is also the closing one—but the film’s framework is a single day. One morning, Jonathan decides to cheer his brother by taking him to see the Christmas windows at a downtown department store, an excursion they loved as kids. Paul refuses, but Jonathan involves his gloomy sibling in the trip anyway by betting that he can run to Bon Marché in a half-hour. He doesn’t make it. An incorrigible if sweet-natured seducer, Jonathan gets distracted by a series of women, including sometime girlfriend Alice (Alice Butaud), who initially is not happy to see him.
Dans Paris is too giddy and freewheeling to offer any tidy lessons in conquering melancholy; Paul and Anna, who are seen clashing bitterly in the film’s first part, might reconcile tomorrow for another round of acidic intimacy. But a psychological shift does seem to occur partway through the film, while stylistic switches arrive even more frequently. Paced by Chantal Hymans’ quicksilver editing, Honoré’s script and direction veer in multiple directions. At one point, a potentially tragic moment quickly turns comic; at another, two characters unexpectedly sing a duet. This is a film that takes, and shares, great pleasure in the unforeseen.
“Dans” can be translated variously, but the movie’s title has generally been rendered in English as “Inside Paris.” That’s a bit of a joke, since Jonathan, his dad, and his prodigal son, Paul, reside not in Paris but in its eastern suburbs, although close enough to see the Eiffel Tower from their apartment window. The scene where Jonathan addresses the camera, with the big city beckoning behind him, suggests Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her, which begins by introducing its suburban protagonist in front of a similar vista. The similarity may not be intentional, but Dans Paris both emulates and invokes the ’60s new-wave masters. Not only do Truffaut and Rivette veterans Guy Marchand and Marie-France Pisier appear as Paul’s and Jonathan’s parents, but cinematographer Jean-Louis Vialard spins through town as if late for an appointment with Breathless’ Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Altogether characteristic is the way Alex Beaupain’s score, which tends toward cool jazz, jousts with the punkish rock of Metric and Kim Wilde. Just as Honoré’s story balances sorrow and joy, his style ranges from buoyantly improvisational to wildly pretentious. The essential strategy of this delightful film is to not treat any of these qualities as contradictory. Whether prowling Parisian boulevards or brooding in a suburban apartment, Dans Paris is always open to what’s around the next corner.