2006Director: Christophe Honoré
Cast: Romain Duris, Louis Garrel, Joana Preiss
epression may be the most inert subject to pursue in any medium: how to depict someone incapable of joy, besides soul-sucking and dejected? Romain Duris gives it a go in Christopher Honoré’s Dans Paris, as a wealthy, handsome but nonetheless perpetually bummed-out Paul. Paul lives in a flat with his polar opposite of a brother, chipper Jonathan (Louis Garrel), and the parents visit in a weekend of family therapy that no doubt does little for Paul on his own terms. At least they aren’t the ones who made him miserable: from what we know of Paul’s bitter on-and-off girlfriend Anna (Joana Preiss), she generates expectations hard to discern and harder to fulfill. Much commended in 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Duris is better here: he has less to do, but does more with it. Showing inner despair, but neither mopey nor lugubrious, Duris seems irrevocably distanced from the emotions he tries to project: he laughs, but laughter passes through him, outwardly rather than inwardly, as if it has no real value. In one of the film’s best scenes, he tries to dance with Anna but ends up simply watching her: his condition renders him as much of a spectator as we.
Duris is well and fine, and the film would do well to stick with him, but Honoré seems so wary of the pitfalls of the psychological drama that he has declined to make one at all. Instead, he’s made a series of gimmicky flourishes, sometimes interesting, sometimes not, but always the work of someone easily bored with himself. Honoré shows his hand early, in a move for which Henry James rightly criticized Anthony Trollope: he has Jonathan directly address the viewer, but, so as not to encourage such a gesture, apologize for it. (Honoré’s countryman Alain Resnais too has used direct address in his recent films, but in a very different way: his characters reach out to the audience in an effort to distance themselves from their own story, using narration as a kind of lifesaver from heights of emotion.)
Some have likened Honoré’s reflexivity to the early days of the French New Wave, and some references are more obvious than others: Paul and Anna casually burst into song during a conversation not usually conducive to musical numbers (cf. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg); Jonathan reads in bed with a paramour à la Jean-Pierre Leaud in Bed and Board, and later walks by posters for American movies, like Jean-Paul Belmondo did posing as Humphrey Bogart in Breathless. But Belmondo dryly mimicked Bogie in a movie dryly mimicking the fatalism of crime movies, whereas when Jonathan walks by a Last Days poster, it reads as Garrel giving a shout-out to his The Dreamers co-star Michael Pitt, at least among my audience, who called the moment “cute.” Indeed, “cute” is Honoré’s problem, if he wants to emulate New Wave style: the popular conception of Truffaut may be young ruffians making funny faces and allusions to pop culture, but reduce it to that and you lose everything that makes it worthwhile. Not that I’m against the occasional homage, but Honoré is far too busy showing he’s indebted to his elders to repay the debt.
What really irks me, however, is that I get the feeling Honoré is smart enough to transcend his weaknesses. Though not always subtle, when Honore is subtle, he’s really subtle, so much so that details barely register, and when his camera moves, it’s wobbly, less like a human observer than a spider monkey loose on set. He’s less interested in observing relationships than doing riffs on a theme, and one riff need be radically different from the other: Jonathan’s segments are so breezy and Paul’s so melancholy they seem to take place in different films—which, judging by Honore’s jarring variation in volume while cross-cutting between the two, is perhaps what he intends. Jonathan’s love-life consists of spontaneous, slapstick-laden kisses, and Paul’s of a mild, fixated smile confused by happiness; it’s to Honoré’s credit that he can engage with such radically different frequencies. The best moments in his films are those when his broad, violent effects and tender ones collide: the mask of restless experimentation is briefly removed, and we witness a personality, schizophrenic though it may be.
Dans Paris will be released on DVD in the late summer.