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The Other Paris.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  In American movies, Paris is usually used as a grandiose romantic prop—lovers kissing in front of the Eiffel Tower, sad-eyed street musicians in berets playing accordions in the rain. The French are hardly immune to the same sentimentalizing. Paris is, after all, the product of centuries of French egomania. But a crop of recent small-scale Gallic films takes a more clear-eyed view of the city.

In Cedric Klapisch's engaging comedy When the Cat's Away (1997, R), the Eiffel Tower only shows up once, way in the distance. The rest of the movie takes place at street level, following young makeup artist Chloe as she searches her neighborhood for her runaway cat. It's really two movies at once: a portrait of modern, multi-ethnic Paris, the one tourists don't see, where traditional French life is being redefined by Asian and African immigrants and big-money urban developers; and a character study of a young woman trying to make sense of her life. The two strands come together, of course, in a way that's predictable but still fun to watch.

Paris is also the backdrop for the striking drama A Single Girl (1995, R), but its ambiance barely registers in the film's tight focus. The movie opens with a young woman telling her boyfriend she's pregnant and then follows her for the next hour of her life, as she starts a new job at a posh hotel and wrestles with the choices she knows she has to make. It's as spare and concise as a good short story, a vivid snapshot of one of those moments in life when everything changes. The only flaw is an unnecessary epilogue, which shows us everything that was already implied by what came before. Virginie Ledoyen is riveting in the central role, by turns mature, naive, hurt, and hurtful.

At first glance, Eric Rohmer's Rendezvous in Paris (1997, NR), takes a more traditional approach to the city of lights. The collection of three vignettes is even strung together by a pair of street musicians complete with berets and an accordion. But that's an ironic accordion, if there is such a thing, and the film turns a study of romance into a study of failed connections—all the ways men and women misread and mislead each other. It's not new territory for Rohmer; the septuagenarian has spent most of his career mapping the rough terrain of relationships. There are insights here, and some well-drawn characters, but it's kind of slow going. On the other hand, it should be an effective antidote for anyone tired of Hollywood's shamelessly artificial conception of romance (or Paris, for that matter).

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