'Paris Is Us' ('Paris est a nous'): Film Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Forget Paris.

One of the first original Netflix releases in France was directed by first-timer Elisabeth Vogler and stars Noemie Schmidt ('Versailles').

If France likes to consider itself both the birthplace of cinema and the country that continues to defend the seventh art through thick and thin, its constituents have, like the rest of us, been gradually lured away from movie theaters toward a multitude of streaming platforms. And while Netflix, the world’s number one streamer, got off to a rocky start in Gaul with a limited selection and very few films d’auteur, it now boasts a wider range of titles and more than 5 million subscribers. What’s still lacking at this point is an original release to bring the very French concept of cinéma online.

Enter Paris Is Us (Paris est a nous), one of the first Francophone features to premiere exclusively on Netflix — and yet another rocky start for the streaming giant in France. Impressively shot on a tiny budget over a three-year period but woefully lacking in the story or character or even the vague interest department, writer-director-cinematographer Elisabeth Vogler’s immersive street movie feels extremely stretched at only 84 minutes, with its heroine literally walking or running in circles from the first to the last scene. There are some pretty moments — and lots of pretty pictures — but it’s hard to see the film drumming up much admiration after its buzzy upload.

Composed of lengthy Steadicam shots recorded on quiet sidewalks and stairwells, or in the middle of crowded plazas, protests or outdoor concerts, Vogler’s debut is structurally reminiscent of Before Sunset or 2 Days in Paris, following a couple — and then just a lonely girl — walking and talking in the City of Light. The difference between those films and this one is that the former had something of a storyline, as well as two compelling people to hang out with, whereas Paris Is Us sketches out its lead characters in only a few lines and never develops them further. The fact that the movie has four credited screenwriters is something of a mystery as there is very little writing present, whether in the dialogue or in what could hardly be considered a plot.

In a nutshell, she (Noemie Schmidt) — the two lead characters have no names — is a twenty-something waitress and jogger with no real ambition, while her boyfriend, he (Gregoire Isvarine), seems to be much more cocksure about his plans for the future. They first cross paths at an outdoor rave party, where they hit it off immediately, and then the film tracks them over an extended period as they wander the city, chatting and kvetching, until they fight so much that he moves to Barcelona and leaves her alone back in Paris.

The one dramatic event involves a plane crash between the two locations that could have killed our heroine, although we find out that she decided to ditch the flight at the last minute. But even that near-disaster is hazily explained and never achieves much emotional weight, becoming more of a centerpiece around which the film turns and turns — and literally, turns and turns when the camera starts spinning on its axis at one point.

Vogler, who made one documentary short before this feature, gets some good mileage out of the years of location shooting, especially a sequence filmed in the bed of the Canal St. Martin after its water was drained out, and another shot on an airplane poised to land on a foggy runway at night. Other eye-catching scenes were shot with real crowds and riot police during a few pivotal events that have marked the city’s recent history, including protests in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Nov. 13 terrorist attacks.

But there’s also a rather distasteful, ambulance-chasing way in which Vogler and her crew seemed to rush out and shoot footage every time something bad happened in Paris, using the city’s tragedies to echo their heroine’s more elusive personal dramas. When, in one scene, you see Schmidt walking toward a cordoned-off street where firemen are evacuating a burning building, you wonder if the filmmakers thought about what they were doing before grabbing a camera and capturing someone else’s catastrophe as a backdrop to their trifle of a story.

Such moral questions seem to be beyond the scope of Paris Is Us, which is more concerned with dishing out Instagram-able imagery and a wannabe Gaspar Noé cum Terence Malick aesthetic, replete with its own gratingly shallow voiceover (“It’s as if we all lived in a big dream. In some kind of data center”). Vogler creates an intoxicating mood at times, especially through slick visuals and a trippy score by French electro maven Laurent Garnier, but her movie is like something you distractedly watch out of the corner of your eye in a café or train station or on someone else’s iPhone on the subway. In other words, it belongs on the small screen.

Production companies: 21 Juin Cinema, French Lab Agency, Les Idiots
Cast: Noemie Schmidt, Gregoire Isvarine, Marie Mottet, Lou Castel
Director-director of photography: Elisabeth Vogler
Screenwriters: Elisabeth Vogler, Remi Bassaler, with the participation of Paul Saisset, Souliman Schelfout
Producers: Olivier Capelli, Laurent Rochette, Aurelien Winterman
Editor: Souliman Schelfout, with the participation of Aymeric Schoens, Raphael Costa
Composers: Jean-Charles Bastion, Laurent Garnier

In French
84 minutes