Friday, June 2, 2017

Paris Can Wait ... but we'd rather not

Paris Can Wait (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

Call this one My Dinner with Andre lite, and on the road. With an undercurrent of flirtatious tension.

When an ear infection prevents Anne (Diane Lane) from joining her husband Michael
(Alec Baldwin, left) on a quick business flight, their friend Jacques (Arnaud Viard) offers
to drive her instead.
That’s undoubtedly what writer/director Eleanor Coppola had in mind, with this unhurried, two-actor travelogue. And she should be grateful for the presence of star Diane Lane, who brings occasional charm to this sojourn through the French countryside.

Because, for the most part, watching this film is like being stuck in somebody’s living room, politely forced to endure vacation photos — and exhaustive commentary — for 92 minutes. The experience may be well intended and handsomely mounted, but the result is the same: restless boredom.

Along with a soupçon of mild irritation. After awhile, watching two people swoon over a series of mouth-watering, haute cuisine meals feels less like vicarious sharing, and more like smug showing off.

We meet Anne (Lane) in Cannes, where her Hollywood producer husband Michael (Alec Baldwin) has been deal-making; their next stop in Paris has just been derailed by his urgent need to manage a location shoot in Budapest. We get a sense that Anne, all tolerant smiles, has been neglected in the midst of all this chaos.

The quick trip to Hungary has been booked on a small private jet, but Anne is suffering from a mild ear infection; the pilot warns that cabin pressure could exacerbate this condition. She dithers; Michael’s business associate Jacques (Arnaud Viard) generously offers to drive her to Paris, where she can wait for her husband’s return.

It’s a marvelous idea; Jacques tosses her suitcase into the rear of his aging Peugeot convertible, and they embark on what should be a seven-hour drive. But Jacques, assuming the role of self-appointed ambassador of All Things France, never met a restaurant, cathedral, museum, roadside fruit stand, or set of Roman ruins that didn’t demand a stop, a lecture and another excuse for eating.

Viard makes Jacques the epitome of the cheerfully suave Frenchman: an unapologetic sybarite whom Anne — polite to the core — has no desire to offend. On top of which, she definitely enjoys the attention, and Jacques’ repeated insistence that she should indulge herself. Where’s the harm?

Well ... when a one-day drive blossoms into two, and then three, we can’t help viewing Jacques less as a congenial host, and more as an amiable stalker. The fact that he keeps “borrowing” Anne’s credit card — for both overnight lodging and a succession of incredibly expensive meals, each with multiple bottles of high-end wine — further raises eyebrows. What, precisely, is this guy up to?

That low-key mystery, along with Lane’s effervescence, may satisfy foodie viewers willing to play along with Coppola’s self-indulgent twaddle. Halfway through the film, though, everybody else will roll their eyes — and think God, no, not again! — each time Jacques insists on another “brief” stop.

The major problem is that these two characters aren’t very interesting. Their “conversations” — he waxes eloquent about yet another culinary masterpiece; she closes her eyes while savoring each first bite and agrees that yes, it’s delicious — quickly become repetitious and deadly dull. Mild lip service is granted to their respective histories, but not to a degree that resonates.

Another issue is subtler. Despite Anne’s affable willingness to embrace this spontaneous excursion with the joie de vivre that Jacques encourages, we get a sense — due to Lane’s raised eyebrows and uncertain sidelong glances — that Anne doesn’t fully trust him. As a result, we don’t either. We also don’t buy the whole premise, which feels increasingly contrived.

Anne takes loads of photographs, not to share on social media — really, not to share with anybody — but just to please herself. We see them, in the time-honored manner of cinema: She frames and snaps a shot, and the image freezes for our benefit. She has an eye for captivating small details, where most people would record the grander tableaus: a talent that Jacques admires, when he persuades her to grant him a look.

But this hobby doesn’t speak to Anne’s character in any way that’s significant to the narrative; it’s merely a detail, as two-dimensional as these characters.

Coppola has better luck with a whimsical affection: occasional tableaus that evoke classic paintings by Cezanne, Renoir and Manet, which we then glimpse fleetingly, such as the lakeside picnic that suggests latter’s “Luncheon on the Grass.” It’s a cute touch, but it does little to heighten our interest.

The dynamic shifts during a detour to Lyon’s Lumière Museum: ostensibly so that Anne can experience this tribute to Louis and Auguste Lumière, regarded as the fathers of cinema, but mostly so that Jacques can enjoy a nooner with Martine (Elise Tielrooy), one of his many casual girlfriends. This encounter fills time, but — again — doesn’t accomplish anything.

To be fair, the three starring roles are well cast. If the premise works at all, credit goes to Lane, whose allure and graceful enthusiasm make Jacques’ interest in Anne seem entirely reasonable. Baldwin is perfect as a relentless micro-manager who remains just self-aware enough to recognize that he’s short-changing his wife. Viard, likely unknown on our shores, is spot-on as the debonair, slightly rumpled Frenchman whose dazzling smile can move mountains.

The production values are top-notch, and cinematographer Crystel Fournier certainly does her best to showcase the delectable treats: whether mouth-watering close-ups of Rouget Barbet, Carre d’Agneau and Crème Brûlée; or the stunning vistas of the Pont Du Gard aqueduct, the Pyramid of Vienne, Vézelay’s Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene, or the bustling Halles de Lyon open market.

But it’s all in service of a narrative trifle which — one can’t help feeling — never would have gotten further than a pitch proposal, were Eleanor Coppola not married to a certain Francis Ford Coppola.

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