Love in All Its’ Shades of Gray

It is often said that a piece of work is only as good as the sum of its parts. In the world of art, this is a very simple statement to understand. As an audience we can see how the combination of oils and canvas can create a richly layered text with full dimensionality. Even with most films, it is clearly demonstrated how point a leads the protagonist to point b and so on and so forth. However, this is not the only way to interpret the old cliché. Some films stray from the beaten path and retain their purpose or are even perhaps strengthened by it. One such film is the 2006 piece, Paris, je t’aime. Each short film is written as a love poem to the city of Paris itself and those who have been touched by it. It should be understood that each piece on its own is a strong testament to the city, but it is through unification that the possibility of the film is realized. Although it is directed by several prominent directors, each responsible for a segment of the film, at the film’s close they are briefly united with a common purpose before the credits roll. Furthermore, throughout the course of the film the topic of love is on the lips of each of these characters, but rather than tart up the typical Hollywood portrayal of love, this film celebrates a love for the city of lights and its citizens in all their complexity. Paris, je t’aime’s celebration of love in all its various incarnations is detailed in each segment, but the true importance of the complications and different types of loves remains unstated until the end of the film.
One of the most basic portrayals of love is the somewhat antiquated and overly romanticized notion of Hollywood type love. This type of love is known to triumph over all despite being at odds with the world of reality. This idea is illustrated in the short film Quais de Seine which explores the love between a teenage boy and a young Muslim girl. Although there are few pieces that celebrate this type of somewhat impractical and unrealistic depiction of love, this short film explores the topic, paying tribute to the most basic understanding of love to a movie-going audience. One must always recognize the affinity for escape that is revered by the American audience. However, this piece has a dual purpose in the larger work of Paris, je t’aime. It shows the potential for good to come out of love. This is not to say that the film itself is especially cynical or particularly jaded, but the many incarnations of love are not glossed over and stylized as so many audiences are used to seeing. Quais is easily one of the most optimistic pieces but its placement as the 2nd segment of the film seems almost transparent. Its hope for the future of its two protagonists, who are never seen kissing or even holding hands, remains modest and in a way, prepares the audience for the understated expressions of love throughout the film, some sweet as this one is, but others bitter.
Another important aspect to the film is the notion of the the potential for love that remains relatively unexplored. Le Marais is Gus Van Sant’s piece in the film which details one man’s fascination with another, only to find that the two do not speak the same language. While this film features two male leads, one who barely says anything at all, there is an unexplored chemistry felt between the two which is only truly realized as the film comes to an end and one of the boys feels compelled to seek out the other. This segment, much like Quais explores potential that is unexamined. However, unlike Quais physicality is defined. The two interact for a brief moment when one’s hand touches that of the other. This may have been unintentionally similar to the focus of the previous segment, but the minimal growth between the two segments seems to demonstrate a more dialectic approach than a mere episodic film, as the casual observer might expect it to be. Furthermore, in the film’s final scene when all of the other lovers are seen interacting, the two leads are absent. Van Sant seems to return to the idea of the unexplored and leaves his audience to ponder their fate although the segment’s end suggests an unrealistic hopefulness for the two. However, the audience has a hope against hope that just maybe escapism will win out and the two will find each other.
Along with this idea of the unexplored is the unavoidable topic of loss. The film seems to relish in the various explorations of loss in its own way and understandably so. It allows for the display of all types of love that may otherwise appear flat and lacking any real dimension. One of the most notable segments dealing with loss in addition to the idea of the unexplored is the short Place Des Fetes, about a young man who is dying and his love of the female paramedic trying to save him. The film details his journey and makes it clear in its own terms that the two have had very little interaction, but the man’s feelings remain. With his final breath, he tells her how he feels and she is understandably taken aback, but still, when he passes, tears come to her eyes. She has experienced a loss of potential, for what could have been with this young man. Furthermore, as she kneels beside the body and begins to cry, a more seasoned paramedic approaches her and says “You’re new?” What is experienced at this moment is not only a loss of potential, but a loss of self. It’s difficult, if not all together impossible, to find people who say that they entered the field of medicine to watch people die. This woman has just been abruptly confronted with the reality of her life, that she will have to watch people die and that there are some things that are unavoidable. Still, as an audience member, it is difficult to imagine the amount of emotional engagement that is housed in this 5 minute film.
Another short film that deals with love and loss, albeit in a different manner, is the segment entitled Place des Victoires, about a woman coming to terms with the loss of her child. While this deals with the theme of loss very directly, it also introduces a new notion of love that is rarely explored in movies and that is the concept of familial love. When love is frequently addressed a romantic as well as sexual understanding of love is usually foremost in people’s minds, but the love of a mother for her child is almost as powerful if not more so. This departure from romantic love in the film is an unusual one, but certainly not the first. There are other shorts that deal with a young woman having to care for another child while leaving her own in daycare in order to make ends meet as well as another piece where a father is commissioned to babysit for his granddaughter. However, Place des Victoires is one of the most memorable ones due to its ability to transcend romantic love as well as the confines of most short films. In the span of 5 minutes it is able to evoke such powerful emotion as well as introduce the audience to a love that most have experienced, but is traditionally left unexplored. Although this film is not the only one to examine the love that a mother has for her son, it does so in a way that is both exceedingly personal as well as relevant to the rest of the film. It continues to investigate these ideas of love and loss, while dealing with a mother figure unlike any the audience has seen in this movie.
As important as the different kinds of love are and love unexplored as well as love lost, but it is the film’s final piece, 14e Arrondissement that the film explores a complete and utter lack of love for another individual. In this piece the protagonist details her trip to Paris and her loneliness. Instead of being sad or depressing, she details where she has been in her life and her experience in the city. It makes a point of establishing past relationships, but makes it equally clear that these opportunities have passed her by and that she is alone. That is, alone except for the city of Paris. Her love for the city in its entirety is an embodiment of her lack of love for any one person. Nevertheless, this segment seems to say that love is not confined to a person, but it may still exist as an idea, a passion, or a fervor for life as the woman in this segment sees it. This lack of love is a beautiful close to the film, because it supplies an emotional satisfaction that may otherwise be left unachieved. It brings to a close all the stories and professions of love in all its complexities and love lost. It shows an understanding of love in its most base form, as one person’s feeling, whether returned, unspoken, or purely felt, for someone or something.
The final scene is a compilation of all the characters of the various segments, some interacting with characters from other stories, some merely serving an end to their own stories. The film manages to conclude the film powerfully, by showing these varieties of love engaged in one grand scene. It illustrates the differences throughout the course of the entire film, but highlights the power with the film’s emotional finale. Ultimately, each segment examines the expression of love and it’s influence in the lives of its characters. As they stand alone, each film can be understood as a piece. However, it is through the collaboration of each that this idea of love is fully established in both its sweetness and its pain. Paris, je t’aime is a testament not only to the city of love, but to love in all its beauty and its ugliness.


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