Netflix productions are often dismissed for being too simple and generic, though by now they've produced plenty of films that could counter that perception. Since a month or so you can safely add Elisabeth Vogler's Paris Is Us [Paris Est à Nous] to that list. Vogler's first feature film is everything but plain and basic, sadly that's exactly why the film is struggling to find an audience. If you're in the mood for something different, something contemporary and overall disruptive though, Paris Is Us has you covered.
That said, the start of the film is plenty comfortable. The first half hour you'd be forgiven for thinking this is just a moderately challenging romantic drama, though stylish in its execution. But then the film spins (quite literally) out of control and slowly but surely Vogler lets go of the slim narrative she built up during those first 30 minutes. Abstract imagery, confused voice overs and dreamy sequences take over and Paris Is Us turns into a cinematic poem, a film that needs to be experienced and felt rather than dissected and understood.
The result is a direct reflection of its production process. Rather than work from a fixed script, Vogler and her crew started out from a general concept and used real world events to steer the narrative. It's no surprise then that the film takes a rather dark turn, as Paris has been going through some turbulent times recently. The attacks on Hebdo and Bataclan left their scars on the city and are incorporated into the film, though in such a way that they support the original narrative. Ultimately though, it's the narrative that reflects on the current mindset of the city.
The film follows Anna, a young and carefree woman living her life without too many worries. She meets Greg at a party and the two fall madly in love, but over the course of two years their relationship falters. He wants to make a career for himself and plans to move to Barcelona while Anna isn't ready to force her life into a fixed direction just yet. Greg gives Anna an ultimatum, but the plane that is supposed to take Anna to Spain crashes without leaving any survivors. Even though Anna decided to decline Greg's offer at the very last minute, something inside her died when the plane crashed to the ground, which left her grasping for support.
For a film that was often shot half-prepared, on location and amidst live events, it all looks surprisingly controlled and stylish. Vogler pushes her camera very near to the characters as it floats around them in an almost inquisitive manner, creating a closeness that enforces the romance. But there are also quite a few scenes that are the exact opposite. Abstract compositions that create a distance between the audience and Anna, as she slowly tumbles into a world of uncertainty. Glitches and strobes add to the visual confusion, which in turn makes the visceral impact all the more tangible.
The soundtrack too was a very pleasant surprise. Rarely does a film soundtrack feature any solid electronic (dance) music, but with Laurent Garnier (French techno legend) working on the music you're bound to get a couple of tracks that belong on an actual dance floor. It also makes the first encounter between Anna and Greg (at a big techno party) that much more convincing. Usually these scenes are all cringe for someone like me, maybe that's finally changing now that "younger" directors are starting to make their mark on cinema. Also props for the rest of the soundtrack of course, Vogler makes great use of it to strengthen the more abstract moments and to increase that modern, poetic feel that runs underneath the narrative.
With Noémie Schmidt and Grégoire Isvarine, Vogler also found a strong central duo, though it's Schmidt who has to do most of the work here. Considering the almost complete absence of secondary characters and the slim narrative guiding her, not even mentioning the impromptu nature of the film, she does a marvelous job constructing her character from the little information that was given to her. Isvarine is solid too, though he's mostly there to counter Anna's character and to keep the romance going.
One interesting thing I noticed when reading the reviews for Paris Is Us, is that most reviewers seem very keen to reference other films and directors. While understandable, it's far from an indication that Vogler's work is derivative. It just means that people, especially with films like these, are always looking for influences and citations in order to get a better grip on the film. Sure enough, the theater scenes can be linked to Mulholland Dr., the poetic structure has a little Malick in it and the romantic cues aren't unlike the work of Drake Doremus. I've seen others mentioned, but these are the ones I picked up myself. That said, I wouldn't directly compare Vogler's film to any of these, as it has just as many elements that set it apart (in a meaningful way) from the influences mentioned above.
Paris Is Us is not an easy watch. It's a film that challenges its viewers, digs deep into its main characters and chases an entire city's state of being. It's a film that is going to confuse and infuriate people, especially the ones browsing Netflix for some simple entertainment. But don't let that crowd be a reference for the success of this film. Paris Is Us is beautifully shot, intimate and abstract at the same time, it features a terrific score, a superb lead and it resonates way beyond its own narrative. It's the kind of film you usually don't get access too unless you frequent films festivals, so kudos to Netflix for giving a broader platform to talented young directors like Vogler. If you like your films a little different, make sure to give this one a chance.