Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘paris je t’aime

Paris is old enough not to be fooled by the same old lines. For every lovestruck idiot who washes up at a café table and sees a city built for romance – and romantic fiction – there’s a clear-eyed realist on the Metro who recognises the city of La Haine, of the Engrenages (Spiral) series, which are the spiritual descendants of Gerard Depardieu’s hard-boiled Police, of the bourgeois paranoia in Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden). It may not be all about Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron walking in step along the banks of the Seine; Audrey Hepburn rhyming ‘Montmartre’ with ‘Sartre’ courtesy of Ira Gershwin in Funny Face; or about dishevelled intellectuals chatting through the night in films by Erich Rohmer or Richard Linklater; or even Michelin-starred rats…

Nonetheless, the enchanting, captivating, romantic Paris is an eternal verity of fiction, and Woody Allen is a film-maker who is comfortable with eternal verities. He used a Greek chorus in one of his films, Mighty Aphrodite, which is about as eternal you can get in the dramatic arts. Allen’s name comes with its own Greek chorus these days, whether commenting on the publicity that flared around his private life for a period in the 1990s, the truth/fiction blur associated with the younger women he may marry, kiss on screen or simply cast for others to kiss, or adopting a position on his film-making capabilities as he continues to release roughly a film a year, rarely (apart from 2009’s Whatever Works) returning to his comic heartland of New York. Against these debates, we risk losing sight of the work Allen has been building up for about 60 years. Including works in production, he has written 45 films, only ceding the director’s chair to somebody else for two of them. Since talking pictures arrived, has there been another great, or very good, film-maker who has made as many – often very good and sometimes great – films as that?

As unique a cinematic figure as Allen is, though, it’s important to recognise that film is a medium for which he had to adapt an already established voice as a stand-up performer. Unlike his fellow New Yorkers, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, even though his work is self-evidently steeped in a love of cinema, his first instincts are driven by the pen, not the camera. Hence, instead of doing the film-maker thing and construct distinctive projects or franchises to encase his ideas, he’ll do the writer thing and explore, develop and often re-cycle tropes around which the individual films take shape. This is one reason why A Twenties Memory, an enjoyably daft short story idea published in the 1971 collection, Getting Even, gets to feed, forty years later, into Allen’s most successful film from his recent ‘European tour’ period: Midnight In Paris. More fundamentally, I think there is an argument to be made that the writer’s eye Allen brings to his film-making, and indeed his comedy, is specifically that of a short story writer.

Midnight In Paris can barely be called an adaptation of A Twenties Memory; the screenwriting Oscar it was awarded this year was in the Original Screenplay category. What it owes the story – which touches down in Chicago, the South of France, Italy and Kenya before passing through Paris en route to Spain – is the conceit of being a friend and companion to Modernism’s most celebrated artists and writers. The film achieves this through a deft insertion of a what if? sci-fi device into the familiar portrait of the protagonist, at odds with the here and now, and trapped within an unsatisfactory relationship. For Owen Wilson’s anxious screenwriter, whose holiday in Paris is courtesy of the conservative parents of his materialistic, WASP fiancée (Rachel McAdam), and whose hankering after the 1920s jazz age becomes a completely different proposition when he finds himself picked up in a cab by Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill’s Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, we have previously had, in 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia Farrow’s downtrodden movie-loving housewife, ill-treated by her brutal husband Danny Aiello, and shown a magical alternative when Jeff Daniels’ matinee idol character steps out of the cinema screen. It’s Mr Benn for grown-ups, engaged with the human story that emerges under these circumstances, less so with the technicalities that brought them about.

In A Twenties Memory, there is no time-travelling device. The narrative starts with the assumption that this is a memoir of time spent in the company of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Picasso, Manolete, Dali, Matisse and the whole crazy gang. It’s a blancmange of a piece, stringing together one-liners that play on the personality cults and “I was there when…” name-dropping of the literary or showbiz memoir writer seeking immortality by association. The legend of Hemingway’s fondness for brawling forms a slender running joke, with the narrator having his nose broken at regular junctures, and the prose format allows the wordplay and more subtle gags room to stow themselves away in the text the way they couldn’t in performance:

That year I went to Paris a second time to talk with a thin, nervous European composer with aquiline profile and remarkably quick eyes who would someday be Igor Stravinsky and then, later, his best friend. I stayed at the home of Man and Sting Ray and Salvador Dali joined us for dinner several tunes and Dali decided to have a one-man show which he did and it was a huge success, as one man showed up and it was a gay and fine French winter.

The film is at least a zabaglione – as light as the story but with more of an intoxicating effect. Wilson’s Gil finds the romance lacking in his modern life when he meets Picasso and Hemingway’s sometime mistress, the alluring Adriana (Marion Cotillard). This sets up an interesting little essay as Gil’s obsession with the jazz age dislocates him from his own time, whereas Adriana, whom Gil believes to be living through the most monumental period in artistic history, surrounded by the greatest minds, is herself caught in an unrequited nostalgia for the Paris of La Belle Époque when the Post-Impressionists held sway. That the film’s resolution is located in this intellectual hall of mirrors, and doesn’t rely upon Gil performing some Herculanean mission to transcend the boundaries of time in order to be with Adriana forever, tells me that Allen’s storytelling revolves around the beguiling notion – the comic idea that may be laced with tragedy; the dramatic idea that can ultimately be shrugged off as just another of life’s episodes. The latter is definitely the case in Vicky Christina Barcelona, which also offers an over-thinking American tourist (Rebecca Hall) a surprising confrontation with old Europe, though this time with no magic portals. Broadway Danny Rose, Melinda and Melinda and Sweet and Lowdown, meanwhile, showcase the yarn-spinning aspect of Allen’s writing. The joy is in the telling, even if that goes nowhere, as in the short story The Whore of Mensa, in which the brilliant comic idea of a call girl racket whereby men pay for intellectual stimulation from widely-read professionals is played out as standard pulp hardboiled fiction. Reading Woody Allen, in print, stand-up or film, as a composer of short stories gives us a new muscle with which to respond to his work.

Even if none of it is still as funny as the guy slipping on the giant banana skin in Sleeper.

Julie Christie and Shia LaBoeuf in "New York I Love You"

When I floated the idea of examining the relationship between short fiction and cinema, most of the responses followed the path from page to screen. I’ve looked at one example of an adaptation, and will return to others in future, but this edition of Reel Time looks at a film franchise which faces out from the screen towards the short story.

Emmanuel Benhiby and Claudie Ossard’s productions under the Cities of Love banner first announced themselves in 2006 with the cinematic release of Paris, Je t’Aime, which was followed in 2009 by New York, I Love You. Rio, Shanghai and Jerusalem are each due to receive a similar declaration of love in the coming years. The films bring together a coruscating array of directors and actors, as cosmopolitan as the cities themselves, who create a series of loosely-linked vignettes. Paris… has as its organising structure the twenty arrondissements of the city, with a different short narrative in each (only eighteen made the final cut), stitched together with a cluster of transitory images. For New York…, there were fewer stories, more superficial crossover between characters from different stories, and a character depicted as the ‘eye’ seeing the transitional sequences.

Natalie Portman and Melchior Beslon in "Paris, je t'aime"

The smörgåsbord of international directorial visions and acting talent has been witnessed before by filmgoers. Each June during my childhood, I seem to have watched and been engrossed by The Longest Day, and its blend of Hollywood, Ealing and European film-making flavours telling the story of the D-Day landings from multiple points of view. Both the Cities of Love so far depicted have (in addition to their countless other cinematic interventions, appearing somewhere between the moon and before sunset) been backdrops to a small compendium of narratives. New York Stories presented a triptych from local masters, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. The result was hit and miss, or rather, respectively, hit, miss, and make it stop. A legend of French cinema, Eric Rohmer, made the beguiling Rendezvous In Paris in 1995, splicing together three contrasting love stories with the city in common. However, it is reasonable to suggest that, above all these, Cities of Love owes something to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which succeeded in translating the sensibility and distilled short story technique of Raymond Carver into a cinematic language. What Cities of Love owes Short Cuts, to be honest, is an apology.

The cities are more than appropriate crucibles for the multiple narratives, images and characterisations that should form a themed anthology. All of the locations are stylish; most of the cast is gorgeous; in each film, there are diverting passages and exquisite moments. What, however, is gained in a book of short stories – at the expense of a novel’s grander narrative sweep and deeper exploration of ideas and language – is the sense of taking the time to fall into step with the lives of complete strangers, of having that serial absorption in different currents of humanity. Short story pacing slows the reader down and, in adaptation, can slow the film-maker down. No-one is racing towards a resolution. With the NY and Parisian vignettes, on the other hand, each segment feels either abandoned mid-resolution or that it carries, all the way through, an overbearing sense of being about to pull a rabbit from a hat – or, more appropriately, a pack-shot of the product being advertised.

In attempting to pare back the expanse of film narrative into something resembling a series of short stories, the film-makers have ended up with a showreel of adverts and music videos. The contributors parade past and, as stylish as several are, the contributions end up resembling nothing so much as a charity auction selling celebrity-customised t-shirts. The appeal isn’t in the artwork but the fact that someone that famous made a donation.

I maintain that a cinematic language, away from that developed within adaptations, can be found that matches the qualities I ascribe to the short story. In Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, for example, the non-linear narrative allows for a very long and seemingly impressionistic sequence in which Sean Penn’s character is haunted by, or seen to be grappling with, his childhood memories and specifically his and his parents’ unresolved grief over the death of his brother. The moments of childhood and family, particular to this story but fiercely familiar, are depicted with such intense honesty that it’s the viewer who projects a narrative text onto, say, the taut, wounded, burdened stance and facial expressions of Hunter McCracken [pictured here in the background, playing Penn’s character as a boy], the eldest of three children.

As ever, the short story connection is built upon a thirst for detail, not a coincidence of brevity.


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