Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Shot in August of 2002, Tom Tykwer’s powerful 7 minute film Faubourg Saint-Denis, the highlight of last year's anthology film Paris Je T’aime, started out life as True, an acclaimed ten minute work that premiered in Germany in 2004. Starring a miraculous Natalie Portman as a young American actress in Paris and Melchior Beslon as her blind boyfriend who confuses reality with a part she is playing, Tykwer’s film is a moving chapter in one of the most distinctive directorial careers of the decade.
Faubourg Saint-Denis is so impressive that apparently it was the film used to finance the beginning stages on the production of Paris Je T’aime with The Coen Brothers signing on shortly after seeing it and the film's other 19 directors soon following in their steps.
For those who haven’t seen it, Paris Je T’aime is quite an achievement…and it reaches its peak though in Tykwer’s segment, a short that manages to somehow take his most transcendent work in films like Run Lola Run, and The Princess and The Warrior and squeeze them into a remarkably concise seven minute segment.
What makes Faubourg Saint-Denis so unique is the thing that makes all of Tykwer’s work so special, namely the rare ability to capture the rawest of human emotions in the most cinematic terms possible. Taking visual cues from such American stylists as Brian De Palma and John Carpenter and combining them with some of the thematic obsessions of both Eric Rohmer’s relationship pictures and Kieslowski’s studies of destiny and fate, Tykwer’s growing canon is a totally unique one and Faubourg Saint-Denis is a key work that finds him firing on all cylinders.
It’s a difficult film to write about though, not only due to its brevity but more importantly by its unflinchingly personal nature. Few modern filmmakers can capture the intricacies of relationships like Tykwer and even fewer can capture the electric and sometimes destructive passion of young love like he can.
Tykwer shot Faubourg Saint Denis after the emotionally exhausting Heaven, an ambitious and well meaning project scripted by and originally meant for Kieslowski himself. Heaven wasn’t the only thing that had fractured Tykwer as a break with his most noteworthy partner in cinema and life, the unforgettable Frank Potente, had also just occurred. Faubourg Saint Denis would return Tykwer to the questions of time, destiny and what exactly is reality that had made Run Lola Run such a dazzling achievement and it would also give him the chance to work with Portman, an actress he is on record as calling the one of the best of her generation…a statement I agree with wholeheartedly.
Portman had just wrapped the dreadful Attack of the Clones for George Lucas, a project that had forced her to deliver some of the worst written dialogue in this or any other decade. The new Star Wars series had in fact made her a huge international star but it had simultaneously damaged her as an actress, seemingly stripping her of the freshness and vitality that had marked her initial work. Faubourg Saint Denis would restore that in its seven short minutes and its not a stretch to say that it is this film that led her to the astonishingly great performances she would give in works ranging from Mike Nichol’s Closer (a film she should have been awarded an Oscar for) and James Mcteigue’s flawed V For Vendetta.
Shot in just four days, Faubourg Saint Denis was supposed to be a part of an anthology project set in Paris that stalled soon after Twkwer shot it. Tykwer is in on record as saying the original ten minute cut was too short so I can only imagine what he thinks of the seven minute Paris Je t’aime edit. Still, while a longer cut would no doubt have been welcome, it is the brevity of Faubourg Saint Denis that perhaps makes it so emotionally overwhelming. Tykwer manages to capture the sometimes grueling excitement of a young relationship in a nearly incomprehensibly honest way here and even more amazingly he manages to portray the thin line in cinema between what is real and imagined in a fresh way that recalls the greatest work of De Palma, probably the director whose work looms largest over his own.
The original cut of True premiered in Germany in 2004 to a mostly enthusiastic reception and it's to its credit that it alone could convince a pair like The Coen Brothers to come aboard a project they probably never would have considered otherwise. It would be a spiritually and artistically healing work for Tykwer, who would say it "symbolises an entire life for me, in just ten minutes." He would take a break after the production and returned two years back with the acclaimed Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. His next project is the much anticipated The International starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts.
Portman continues to have one of the most interesting careers in modern American film and her recent appearance in Wes Anderson’s moving short Hotel Chevalier, a film that almost seems like a tribute to Tykwer’s True at times, shows her as an actress capable of capturing whatever obsessive detail her director asks of her and doing so in a way that is often direct, at times devastating and always true. She can next be seen in New York, I Love You, the American answer to Paris Je T’aime.