Tom Tykwer’s “Faubourg Saint-Denis” tells the story of a moment of confusion between two lovers, Francine and Thomas (played by Natalie Portman and Melchior Beslon) where, briefly, the man thinks things are over and the relationship flashes before his eyes. The voice-over addresses the beloved in the second person, a love letter the audience intercepts, and the breathless montage recounts the varied history of these two lovers. It’s a love story of all the small moments, the screams, the tears, the laughs, the repetition of days.
It’s an excessive discourse that recalls other excessive expressions of passion: Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. And yet, in its passion and direct address, its lovely claustrophobia, maybe more accurately Pablo Neruda’s Captain’s Verses.
The film is intimate, excessive, and yet made up of an abundance of small moments that on their own might be insignificant. It’s the repetition of these small moments that makes up the pattern of the couple’s days, the accumulation of memories that shapes the intimacy here. As their history flashes by, the repetitions layer like a palimpsest, the images becoming part of a larger passionate body. “I see you,” says Thomas at the end of the film, as though this were only possible through the crisis and remembering he has just experienced.
Such passionate expression requires a talented hand. It’s difficult to distill so much dramatic history down into a short film without lapsing into melodrama or without drama turning into comedy. Tykwer seems to meta-comment on this here with the film within the film, the cheesy pimp and prostitute story that Francine stars in. When she calls Thomas back to figure out why he hung up, Francine asks him, “How are you supposed to say [it] . . . without sounding completely melodramatic?”
Their story avoids melodrama through montage and the pure adrenalin of the piece. This is in a sense the polar opposite of the Wong Kar Wai offering a few weeks ago: where Wong lingers and hangs all granite gravity on an image in slow motion, Tykwer races past images like a water slide of vodka.
“Faubourg Saint-Denis” is one of the eighteen short films featured in Paris, je t’aime, an anthology of short films by several significant directors, each set in a different arrondissement of Paris. Other directors in the project include Gus Van Sant, Richard LaGravenese, The Cohen Brothers, Alfonso Cuaron, and Alexander Payne.
Tykwer has masterly told passionate tales before, matching star-struck and tortured romances with a sort of fairy tale sensibility: the questions of fate, free will and running in Run Lola Run; the innocence and violence of The Princess and the Warrior; the dark, damaged passion of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
—R. W. Gray