Curiously, Dans Paris (Inside Paris), second feature-film from the young French director Christophe Honoré (Ma Mère) takes place in a suburb of the French capital. The City of Lights is never far from consciousness; and its proximity is constantly reaffirmed by the ubiquitous Eiffel Tower, visible out of most windows, and in numerous exterior shots.
Jonathan (Louis Garrell) and Paul (Romain Duris) live with their divorced father (Guy Marchand) in a cluttered apartment with tall, overflowing bookcases and dimly-lit corridors. Paul has come home after breaking up with his long-time girlfriend Anna (Joana Preiss). The drama of that relationship is told in a lengthy and disjointed montage that takes up the film’s first half-hour. For the better part of 90 minutes, a depressed Paul lounges around the apartment in his underwear. Meanwhile, Jonathan tries to persuade Paul to come out shopping with him, neglecting his classes and his father, who needs Jonathan’s help with buying a Christmas tree. Paul remains housebound, as Jonathan has a series of trysts on the streets of Paris. He reunites with an old girlfriend, Alice, with whom he plays blind man’s bluff in the Tuileries, and has two other casual encounters.
The light, breezy atmosphere of this portion of the film brings to mind both Truffaut and Woody Allen. The more severe and interior drama of Paul’s post-relationship depression is the other major storyline and is constructed with understated mise-en-scene and cinematography that bring to mind one of Ingmar Bergman’s marital dramas. When the film shifts gears between amorous farce and claustrophobic family drama, the dialogue turns ponderous. It is this type of revealing and poetic dialogue that seems forced on the viewer rather than earned. Romain Duris’ quiet anguished performance is perhaps least affected by this propensity. But he hardly escapes unscathed. Late in the film, Paul telephones Anna. Without a greeting, he begins to sing a French love song into the receiver, and she joins in, singing the female part. The scene is supposed to be touching, but it comes off as laughable.
The greatest joy of Dans Paris is Garrel’s whimsical and seductive performance. Garrel also narrates the film in character. In the opening minutes, he stares into the camera: tentative at first, then with conviction. “Make no mistake,” he addresses the audience, “this is an apostophe.” Garrel also bears more than a passing resemblance to Jean-Pierre Léaud, and his charming, irresponsible character plays like a less neurotic Antoine Doinel.
All-in all, the film is a disjointed mix of different moods and styles. Honoré’s filmmaking is less assured than that of his compatriots Arnaud Desplechin or Francois Ozon. If Dans Paris is any indication, though, he needs to learn to give his film dramatic and psychological weight without trying to diffuse that gravity through farce. Unlike the masterful tightrope walk between melodrama and farce that Desplechin gave us with Kings and Queen, Honoré allows his film to skid jerkily from anguish to whimsy. The result is a well-acted and beautiful film that disappoints by leaving both its characters and storyline strangely unfulfilled.
Despite solid performances all-around and technically assured filmmaking, Dans Paris is curiously a film without a center, a jumbled work that doesn’t know what to do with its own narrative devices. Garrell’s apostrophizing is an irreverent touch that distracts from any real concern for the characters. Likewise, the upbeat soundtrack of American and French pop and jazz helps set a frivolous and impersonal tone for a curious story whose tragic-comic tone demands a more attentive and delicate touch.