Anthology features live and die by their best and worst offerings, and in the case of Paris, Je T'Aime, the absolute worst may be its first two: Bruno Podalydès' "Montmarte" and Gurinder Chadha's "Quais De Seine." The former follows a desperately lonely man as he finds the girl of his dreams passed out next to his car; and the latter contains a ramrod-straight social message, as a wolfish lad learns to respect the convictions of a young woman in a hijab. Both represent a lot of what the next 16 films try to do, with varying degrees of success. Given only five minutes or so to work with, talented directors like Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuarón, and Olivier Assayas present sketchy encounters that either peter out to nothing or end with pat ironies.
Luckily, Paris, Je T'Aime contains a few good films among its total whiffs. At the top of the heap is the Coen brothers' "Tuileries," a funny, stylish mini-farce about Steve Buscemi's troubles as a tourist trying to obey some of the more arcane rules of Le Métro. By and large, Paris, Je T'Aime is handsome but not terribly eclectic, but the Coens' entry is refreshingly distinct. The same can be said of Isabel Coixet's "Bastille" and Tom Tykwer's "Faubourg Saint-Denis," both of which zip through the highlights of two love affairs with more scope and poignancy than nearly any other contributor attempts. (One other major exception: "Tour Eiffel," a mime-focused, whimsy-choked live-action debut for The Triplets Of Belleville director Sylvain Chomet.)
Because Paris, Je T'Aime's episodes are so short, the duds don't stick around long enough to grate much. But the good ones also don't get to explore their assigned Parisian spaces as much as they could. Oddly enough, two of the most effective films are the two most potentially divisive. In Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas' "Loin Du 16ème," an immigrant nanny leaves her own baby in day care so she can look after a rich woman's child; and in Alexander Payne's "14ème Arrondissement," a Denver postal worker narrates her trip to Paris in flat, nasal French. Both films have been accused of picking on easy targets, but unlike a lot of the company they keep, these two can't really be reduced to a description of their plots. In "Loin Du 16ème," the way Catalina Sandina Moreno sings lullabies to her two babies is more affecting on screen than on the page; and in "14ème Arrondissement," Margo Martindale's honest enjoyment of a day in the park rounds out both her story and the movie's overall portrait of the city. Neither film is too busy to take in the sights.