A moody nod to French New Wave
A lighthearted riff on heavy themes, "Dans Paris" is a knowing throwback to the playful, profound works of the early French New Wave. Writer-director Christophe Honoré is working from a stylistic triangulation of Francois Truffaut, Jean-luc Godard, and Jacques Rivette, and if those names mean anything to you, the movie will be a sneaky and inspired blessing. If you're coming in cold, "Dans Paris" may play like an inscrutable essay on French people moping.
But no one mopes as attractively as the French, especially when they have an apartment with an Eiffel Tower view. Honoré, who's coming off the lurid psycho-sexual gamesmanship of 2004's "Ma Mere," eases up in "Dans Paris" for a tale of two brothers and their grizzled father all beating their heads against the mystery that is Woman.
Paul (Romain Duris of "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," his feral facial angles blunted by a beard) has retired from the field, devastated by the collapse of an argumentative affair with Anna (Joana Preiss), who can build him up and tear him down in the same breath. Moving back in with his retired father, Mirko (Guy Marchand), Paul spirals into a clinical depression that the movie paints with the sympathetic realism of a caseworker: lots of sleep, lots of TV, dark moods, darker laughter.
Sharing the apartment is Paul's brother, Jonathan (Louis Garrel of "The Dreamers" and "Ma Mere"), whose lanky resemblance to Truffaut's Antoine Doinel is very much the point. As mired as Paul is in the sadness of life's disappointments - when Anna tells him "Being loved doesn't mean everything's fine," he visibly crumples, and wouldn't you? - Jonathan skips along the arondissements from one conquest to another.
Occasionally he takes it on the chin as hard as his brother, yet he pops back up like a punching clown, and his affairs are filmed with a cheeky insouciance that owes a lot to the Godard of "A Woman Is a Woman" - sped-up romps in the Jardins des Tuileries and the like. Like a more mordant version of that film, "Dans Paris" every so often dips into other genres, with a phone conversation between Paul and Anna flowering into sudden song.
At times the past 50 years of French cinema seems spackled into the movie's cracks. When the boys' estranged mother turns up, she's played by Marie-France Pisier - still otherworldly after all these years - and just the idea that she could be married to Marchand is a tickle to those who remember 1975's arthouse hit "Cousin, Cousine," in which the two were wed to others who fell in love.
Pisier also raises the specter of Rivette's 1974 cult masterpiece "Celine and Julie Go Boating," whose cross-edited mix of past and present, reality and fiction Honoré honors here. Does Paul go for an impromptu swim in the Seine one chilly 4 a.m., or is it but a dream? Is Claire, the brother's long-dead sister and the emotional shroud that hangs over the family, the lost child of "Celine and Julie," or an escapee from an Eric Rohmer movie? If you're of the filmgoing generation that has these films buried under its skin, "Dans Paris" provides a brooding, poetic echo - an after-dinner mint to a lasting meal.
"Take time to ignore the sadness in your family" is the closest the film comes to advice, and the puckish, charismatic Garrel is its personification, breaking the fourth wall to beckon us in. "Dans Paris" takes place in a wintry Paris, under clouded skies, but the city still provides one effortless grace note after another. We never see the sun, but by the end Paris in the spring seems inevitable.