Paris Can Wait
Eleanor Coppola (2017)
In the interests of full disclosure I must admit that my sole reaction to the trailer for Eleanor Coppola’s new film Paris Can Wait was, “Wow, that’s a movie that I’ve seen a hundred times, and it doesn’t look like there is a single new twist in it.” The fact that my reaction after seeing the movie itself was exactly the same could conceivably be a case of seeing just what I expected to see, or it might be a case of my being right to begin with.
My wife will undoubtedly have a different point of view, and will tell me—as she often does, correctly, in such cases—that I am not the film’s intended audience. And usually she would be right. In this case though, it would seem the intended audience is people who enjoy travel, in particular gastro-tourism, which is what the movie is all about, and that is a group that I unflinchingly belong to. But the fact is, even those who are the intended audience—that is, people who have actually made the effort to go to the film thinking they were going to like it—don’t seem to like it much. According to Rotten Tomatoes.com, only 48 percent of the folks attending the film came away with a positive rating for it. So what’s the problem with Paris Can Wait?
Well, it isn’t Diane Lane, who is sympathetic and believable as the protagonist Anne, a long- suffering wife of a rather narcissistic film producer who is also going through a difficult empty nest syndrome as her daughter Alex is off to college. Nor is it Alec Baldwin as the husband Michael, whose occasional tender impulses toward his wife are constantly interrupted by his business, as Baldwin plays the oblivious blowhard to perfection. And it isn’t Arnaud Viard either, who plays Jacques, Michael’s French business associate, who volunteers to schlep Anne to Paris when an ear infection prevents her from flying to Budapest with Michael. Or maybe in part it is Viard after all. No, the acting is fine, though I did find Viard’s charm wearing a little thin as he kept stringing the road trip along and charging everything to Anne’s credit card, while flirting with her in a way that becomes increasingly uncomfortable. As she grew more and more charmed by him, I grew more and more annoyed.
Nor can it be claimed that the film is not beautifully shot. The seven-hour drive from Cannes to Paris is turned by Jacques’ side trips into a two-day jaunt through Provence and Burgundy, giving us a mini-tour of the Pont du Gard aqueduct near Nimes in Languedoc, the Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, the world-famous Museum of Textiles in Lyon, all fairly idealistically filmed without a single other tourist around. But the French countryside is highly photogenic. Even more time and effort are spent photographing the mounds of French food the two travelers consume, as they stop several times a day to eat sumptuous gourmet dinners augmented by expensive French wines, heaps of chocolate desserts, and plate after plate of French cheese, so that in all justice fromage should receive second billing in the film, right under Lane’s name. This is all quite indulgent and even decadent, but even pictures of delicious food get tiresome after a while, as Facebook has probably taught most of us, and in a film like this, the short drive that has ballooned into a days-long endurance test is reflected in the film itself, which even at 92 minutes seems to go on too long. By the time Paris is in sight we’re dying for something to happen, or dear God, to be let out of that car.
Eleanor Coppola, the 81-year old wife of Oscar winning director Francis Ford Coppola of Godfather fame, directed this film—her first narrative film after making a name for herself in documentaries, like the Emmy-award winning Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which chronicled the chaotic behind-the-scenes production of her husband’s Vietnam War saga Apocalypse Now. There is unquestionably a significant autobiographical aspect to Paris Can Wait, built up over years of its writer-director’s experience as wife of a mega-powerful Hollywood insider. There is also good reason to applaud Ms. Coppola for providing a film aimed at the vastly underserved audience of women over fifty. But to some extent the film is more of a vanity project
Start with the movie’s premise itself: the neglected wife of an incredibly successful businessman is at a crossroads of her life, and finds herself through a kind of pilgrimage. But her pilgrimage, which involves incredibly expensive meals and luxury hotels charged to her credit card, is the sort that could only be available to a small fraction of the film’s audience. And although Anne insists she needs to get to Paris more quickly, the film never tells us of any specific obligation she has except to be there when her husband arrives. How many women in real-life unfulfilling marriages are really going to be able to identify with this kind of lifestyle?
But I suppose one may envy it, and fantasize about such a life. But then, aren’t there better movies to do that in? The clichéd “road trip to self-discovery” goes back—well, as far as Homer’s Odyssey, so I suppose you can call it archetypal if you want, but it’s certainly been done better as far back as, say, It Happened One Night. Or in Rainman,. Or Easy Rider. Or The Motorcycle Diaries. Or with a feminist twist in Thelma and Louise. But each of those films added something a little new or different to the formula. I don’t see anything new here, except maybe in the focus on food, which, again, has already been done better in, say, Babette’s Feast, or Big Night, or Chocolat, or Julie and Julia. And if what you manly want to see is Diane Lane rediscovering herself, that too has already been done better in Under the Tuscan Sun.
The very best scene in this movie, in my own view, is the scene in which Jacques’ faded blue vintage Peugeot breaks down, and it is Anne who finds that the problem is a broken fan belt—which she proceeds to fix with a nylon stocking, something she says she “saw on YouTube.” This scene stands out because it is the only place in the film where Anne shows any agency in her own right. She allows herself to be essentially under her husband’s thumb until, too distracted by his own business concerns to consider the problems of such an arrangement, he turns her over to the protective hands of his French partner, another man, who drives Anne all around southern France, often against her own expressed wishes, mansplaining to her all about how she should be more French in her attitudes about life, love, and food, and teaching her all kinds of things about food, wine, and tourist sites. From her passenger-seat vantage point, Anne learns all about herself, as explained to her by the man doing the driving. If she is going to be a new woman after her transformational road trip experience, it’s apparently not going to be a new woman taking charge of her own destiny. Indeed, the film has a rather unsatisfactory “Lady or the Tiger” ending which I can’t imagine working out without some man telling Anne how to solve it. The fan-belt scene undercuts the rest of the movie, demonstrating that Anne could in fact be her own woman if she chose to be so.
At the risk of incurring the displeasure of my wife, who is enough her own woman to give me a vehement piece of her mind about my choice, I’m going to give this one two Jacqueline Susanns: you might like this movie. I didn’t.