An omnibus film is sort of like an omnibus bill in Congress. It’s a compilation of many different films, all rolled up into one. But whereas the smaller bills of a Congressional omnibus often have nothing to do with each other, the smaller films are supposedly tied together by a theme. I say ‘supposedly’ because it doesn’t always work out so well in practice. Omnibus movies have become staples of the film festival circuit in recent years, and it’s telling that hardly any of them have shown up in art theaters. So I was surprised when I found out that last year’s big omnibus film Paris, je t’aime was making its way to Chicago. Was this the rare compilation that held together dramatically or was it merely the one that was easiest to market?

Certainly Paris, je t’aime (the translation means “Paris, I Love You”) has a great hook. 18 short films by 18 world-class directors featuring a variety of actors in short vignettes about love in Paris. I mean, if you can’t get excited about love in Paris, then you should probably stop reading this blog and go back to watching “America’s Got Talent.” And for those familiar with arthouse fare of recent years, the lineup of directors is a veritable Murderer’s Row: Alfonso Cuaron, the Coen brothers, Christopher Doyle, Alexander Payne, Walter Salles, Tom Tykwer, Gus van Sant. And the actors aren’t bad either: Steve Buscemi, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Gerard Depardieu, Nick Nolte, Natalie Portman, Gena Rowlands, and many, many others. Fortunately, the film almost lives up to the talent involved.

pjt_bs_lx_01-resized.jpgOne of the nice things about Paris is the variety of the material. While there’s the expected scene of young lovers by the River Seine, there’s also a hilarious sequence where an older husband and wife (a wonderful Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant) try to spice up their love life in the red light district. There’s a couple’s first meeting, appropriately the film’s first vignette, where a man falls for a woman who’s fallen. But there’s also a couple’s last meeting, with the terrific Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands as a couple about to sign divorce papers. And it’s not always romance as a subject. Two emotionally charged sequences focus on the love of a mother for a child, and the final scene is about a single woman falling in love with the city itself.

Even when the subject is young love, the various directors deal with it in disparate ways. The aforementioned River Seine vignette features a young Frenchman falling for a Muslim woman. Their discussion of why she wears the hijab becomes a larger meditation on multi-ethnicity. A delightful scene with Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell focuses on the importance of laughter and passion to a relationship. And in a moment that reminded me of Sin City, Elijah Wood falls in love with a vampiress. It’s a weird but appropriate reflection on the obsessive nature of l’amour fou.

The city itself provides the backdrop, with each scene taking place in a different part of Paris. Those more familiar with the city than I will probably find that aspect particularly enjoyable, but even I could appreciate the gorgeous Pere Lachaise Cemetery and the periodic cityscape shots at night that function as chapter breaks. And a witty chapter that plays with the stereotype of a mime uses the Eiffel Tower for humorous effect.

pjt_em_rs_01-resized.jpgI was slightly disappointed that there weren’t as many visually striking moments, but maybe that’s what happens when directors have only a limited amount of time and money. Still, a shot of Juliette Binoche on an abandoned street corner at night will stick with me for a long time. More impressive than the visual layout is the film’s use of music. Just as Paris moves from neighborhood to neighborhood, the music beautifully transitions through various genres. In one, an African immigrant played by Seydou Boro sings a beautiful tune as he tries to woo a pretty paramedic, while in another scene Catalina Sandino Moreno sings a gorgeous lullaby to her baby.

Not every scene is a winner, of course. The Coen Brothers sequence is a reminder of how little I laughed at their last film The Ladykillers, and Christopher Doyle’s contribution feels like a bizarre fashion commercial (though maybe that was the point). Those are more than balanced out, though, by my favorite chapter, which is directed by Tom Tykwer. In just a few short minutes, he tells the story of a summer romance between a young actress (the lovely Natalie Portman) and a young blind man. Tykwer’s use of time-lapse photography to portray the rise and fall of a relationship struck me as achingly beautiful and almost worth the price of admission alone. Fortunately, there are another dozen fine scenes which tip the scales.

Paris, je t’aime: four, out of five