Exclusive: Talking Paris with Juliette Binoche and Director Cédric Klapisch

Jean Cocteau once said that, “In Paris everybody wants to be an actor; nobody is content to be a spectator.” Yet, in writer/director Cédric Klapisch’s latest ensemble film, Paris, a dancer (Romain Duris) afflicted with a failing heart discovers the vicarious solace of the gaze, Rear Window-style. When his concerned social-worker sister (Juliette Binoche) moves in with her three children to care for him during the wait for a heart transplant, he sums up his passing days with a simple phrase: “I watch other people live.” Through this prism of mortality, Klapisch explores his luminous hometown with affection and with what one character describes as a “curiosity for heritage,” offering vignettes that come to life across the postcard-ready arrondissements.

Last week, we sat down with the jovial director and the uber-busy actress (BAM is currently presenting In-I, her dance collaboration with British choreographer Akram Khan, and the French Embassy is exhibiting In-Eyes, a collection of her portraits and poetry). Veering from the omnibus route of Paris Je T’aime, Klapisch’s pop valentine plaits together his insider “ideas about the city.” Klapisch explained that “the principle of [Paris Je T’aime] is that you have different visions of the city. In this, it’s my vision, which is multiple. But it’s still one person looking at rich people, poor people, young people, old people.”

It’s an all-in-one attitude that hallmarks Klapisch’s melancholic/comedic films, like his most famous stateside releases L’Auberge Espagnole and its sequel, Russian Dolls. The director culls his characters from each social stratum: a chatty boulangerie owner (Karin Viard) who proves to be a touch xenophobic; a team of Rungis’ market traders, one smitten with the lonely Binoche (Albert Dupontel); a Cameroon native (Kingsley Kum Abang) who makes the illegal trek to Paris to find l’amour with a fashion model (Audrey Marnay); a bourgeois architect (François Cluzet) who endures a strange, computerized nightmare about pratfalls of urban planning; and his brother (Fabrice Luchini in comic relief), a professor of Parisian history who becomes infatuated with a fetching student (Mélanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds) and texts her stanzas of Baudelaire along with deal-sealers like “U R awesome. I’m 2 hot 4 U.”

Many of these characters suffer from a dissatisfaction with their lives as is, but Klapisch insists that it’s a Parisian trait. “That’s what [Duris] says in the taxi, that people whine a lot, complain all the time, they’re not happy about everything. I can see that in a positive way. Everything historical about Paris deals with revolt, being revolted. So in 1789, that’s what happened. In 1968, that’s what happened. For me, it deals with the same thing: the fact that we don’t accept things as they are. It’s a good thing and bad thing.”

Despite the “network of interconnections” that occurs during the shuffled plot, the strongest — unsurprisingly — is between brother and sister. “It was refreshing to explore this kind of relationship,” confessed Binoche, who drew on experiences with her own sister and half-brother. “Because I’ve been into, you know, lovers’ relationships and [relationships] with children. Somehow, because it’s not getting physical, you can get very, very close. It’s learning to love in a different way.”

Klapisch lauds the gusto that the acclaimed actress brought to the role. “The first scene that we made together — the three of us — was when [Duris] says he’s sick to his sister. Instead of being compassionate, she’s mad at him. While she had to be angry to show her love, that was very tricky because it’s a very strange way to react. But I think that really gave the right emotions about the fact that, between a brother and sister, it’s not really logical.”

With her proximity to death, Binoche’s straitlaced character eventually undergoes a heartfelt change by the film’s end, resulting in a memorable striptease. “Just thinking of Rita Hayworth,” she joked. “I didn’t see it as an outsider, I just had fun with it. It’s about the complicity with the man. More than being sexy or not sexy is to make him laugh.”

The city itself, of course, has the title role and although lensed for the nth time, it remains as picturesque and monumental as ever. That’s not to say that clichés are absent; after all, it’s a film that begins up in the Eiffel Tower. But Klapisch actually seeks them out to “incorporate them into something that, in the end, is not cliché anymore.” He acknowledges that “clichés are part of life,” if not essential to it. In this case, the director does a cinematic wink-wink by having his camera pan back to reveal an onscreen camera. As it turns out, the most popular of sites are being shot for a tourism-board DVD with the professor — split like many a Parisian between a fear of the sterile future and a static cling to the past — as the anxious guide.

Klapisch himself had the support of local authorities. “I talked with the main office, the police department, and the mayor’s office at the beginning saying, ‘Okay, my movie is going to be called Paris…’ So I told them because of that, try to work with me instead of working against me. And it did work, because for many scenes it really helped to have them on my side.”

For both, Paris represents yet another chance to shoot in the beloved French capital. Binoche has made countless films set there, from her last film, Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours, to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, and on back to her early films with enfant terrible Leos Carax. But the city is rapidly changing. “The Mayor [Bertrand Delanoe] is changing the city pretty amazingly. Now the cars are less and less because you can’t park, you’re stuck in traffic, you have just one road instead of three because of buses and green space. In a way, it’s changing its face. And I hope it’s going to change people’s humor.”

Klapisch adds, “I think that French people opened up much more because they traveled more, learned more, studied other languages. I’m pretty optimistic that they have a different attitude towards foreigners because of that. I think people are cooler than they were ten years ago. You can see that in the coffee shops, it’s less uptight than before.”

Binoche even offers a tip for visitors who fear the famed Parisian snootiness. “You can transform people very easily if you don’t get stuck on ‘oh he hasn’t smiled so he’s my enemy.’ If you smile, you may have a smile in return. It’s actually fun to see who you’re going to get.”

Paris opens in limited release today.