It’s difficult to hang out with Carol (Margo Martindale), the awkward protagonist of Alexander Payne’s short film “14e Arrondissement.” An American postal carrier on vacation in Paris, she narrates what happened on her trip in a broken and poorly pronounced French delivered to an unseen French class in Denver, Colorado. Her desire to fully explore Paris, to really experince what she imagines is a French experience is troubled by her insistence on doing so with a fanny pack . . . we are, at least at first, meant to see this as a satire of American tourists abroad.
But what I like about Payne’s satire is how his characters are clowns (themselves the somestimes desperate object of ridicule) and also buffoons (who ridicule the audience). Of course, this double aspect may be only apparent in any discomfort we feel listening to Carol’s poorly pronounced travelogue, watching her awkward interactions with the locals, and seeing her trying to pop her ears in an elevator like a deep sea bass coming up from the depths (while she, in voice over, talks about death and dying). We don’t want to identify with Carol, particularly if we own fanny packs.
But Carol’s frank and clear narrative counterposes the poor French and her so-very-un-Parisian travels as she confesses a litany of loss, failed dreams, and a little bare-bone loneliness. She perhaps shares too much with this well of pathos, and yet there is a brutal honesty to the confession, partly a product of the directness of the form, a dramatic monologue that is her French class report, but also part of the clarity with which she sees her losses and reports them. There is no sense that she seeks sympathy. In case we’re confused, she explains that she is a happy person. Her story isn’t a plea for sympathy. It’s about her trip to Paris. And in the conclusion of the report and the short film, a conclusion we may feel teeter on the edge of all that disappointment and loss she has experienced, her real journey breaks through.
Carol has an absolute outsider’s view of the city and with her awkward perspective, her struggle to find her way through her expectations and hopes, she at first seems to be the quintessential tourist. In the opening shots of her in the hotel she reports that “the food wasn’t as good as [she] expected” over a shot of a half-eaten burger and a bottle of diet coke she has obviously ordered through room service in her hotel. But Carol is complex and confesses she did not sign up for a tour because she “wanted to live an adventure in a foreign place.” Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky argues that an “important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.” Carol refuses to be exclusively a tourist because she resists becoming a victim to her expectations, her homesickness for her dogs, or her jet lag. She does intrepidly seek what Paris has to offer, despite her desire for familiar narratives like when she imagines what it would be like to deliver mail there.
It was with great fear that I watched the last scenes of this short though, as it reminded in a terrible way of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Mrs Brill,” a story I read in my youth and that, thereafter, filled me with foreboding whenever I imagined I was part of some great musical theatre moment of belonging on trains or in public parks. Who hasn’t wanted to feel what Mrs Brill feels when she imagines all the people in the park with their chorus of “We understand.” Carol is thankfully not Mrs Brill, though. For Carol does not desire to be accepted or to be drawn into the beloved arms of a throng of strangers. Carol’s ending is about her own experience, her own insistence on happiness and her own ability to appreciate the moment, on the bench, with the sandwich, in Paris.
“14e Arrondissement” is the last of the eighteen short films by well-known filmmakers that make up the anthology film Paris Je’ Taime. Richard Brody in his New Yorker review argues that “this mixed bag [Paris Je T’Aime]. . . is mandatory viewing for its one absolute masterpiece, by Alexander Payne.” Numero Cinq at the Movies has featured one of the other Paris Je T’Aime shorts, Tom Tykwer’s “Faubourg Saint-Denis.”
Payne apparently first resisted this story when he was challenged to make a short film set in the 14e Arrondisement. In an interview with David Stratton, he admits, “the last thing in the world I wanted to do was make a film about an American tourist, and I thought this would be an excuse to hire some really beautiful European actress, you know, and like, you know, have some fun that way.” But the place inspired him to move away from his own Francophile desire and this idea occurred to him. “After I spent time walking around that Ahondes mall and brainstorming as to what the idea could be, I just thought the idea I came up with was one that would give me an excuse, basically, to make a documentary about that. I wanted to show as much of it as possible, and the idea of a woman having a lamo tourist day walking around that strange Ahondes mall . . . somehow the idea of an American tourist and hiring Margo Martindale came to me.” And yet Carol allows Payne to represent the sublime she finds in the lamo.
Alexander Payne is an American writer and director known for such compelling and fascinating films as Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways, all four co-written with his frequent writing partner Jim Taylor. They were nominated for an Oscar for their adaptation of Tom Peyrotta’s novel Election, won both the Golden Globe and Oscar for their adaptation of Sideways, and, Payne and two other writers recently won an Oscar for their adaptation of The Descendants. He is in pre-production to direct a film called Nebraska.
– R. W. Gray