Lost in Paris does not get off to the best of starts. Our story opens up in the snow-covered wastes of Somewhere in Canada with a garish primary colour scheme and blatant green-screening that makes it very clear that, not only did the film’s directors (and writers and stars and producers) Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel not film the respective sequence in Canada, but that they’ve also perhaps never even set foot in Canada at all. It’s stylistic and artificial in a deliberate manner, that much becomes clear as the rest of the film goes on, but the result is weirdly annoying. Less Wes Anderson – a comparison many other reviewers have thrown at the film, but one that makes absolutely no sense outside of this small scene given the film’s true inspirations – and more IKEA commercial; like when somebody is desperately trying to prove just how kitschy and deliberately false their aesthetic is and won’t stop forcing it in your face no matter how much you try to placate them by insisting that their ghastly designs are actually super clever and alternative.
Fortunately, the remaining 78 or so minutes of Lost in Paris are far better than that off-putting start, one that even includes an extended “bracing cold winds blow people about” gag that fails to land for reasons we’ll get to shortly. Then again, you may end up disagreeing with that statement and the remaining 78 minutes of Lost in Paris may, in fact, drive you up all of the nearby walls. See, Lost in Paris is full-on. It is the kind of movie that doesn’t understand that restraint and subtlety are not only necessary traits in presentations, but executable concepts at all. This is a film that goes full-bore in every aspect of its production design, its comedy, its aesthetics, its feel, its mood; a film so sugary sweet and trifle-y that diabetics like myself could likely be put into ketoacidosis purely as a result of being exposed to it for extended periods of time. At times, it can feel more than a little too try-hard and show-offish, like the forever-king of excessively quirky falsely-charming French comedies Amélie.
However, for me, Lost in Paris eventually shirked those comparisons, into something that’s still the cinematic equivalent of an enjoyable-but-forgettable ice cream sundae that’s been painfully over-designed, yet a film that I was enamoured with regardless. Its closest modern analogue, rather than the dreadfully empty yet self-involved The Artist, is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. Both are films that have gone to great self-conscious lengths to replicate the a genre of Golden Age Hollywood that its writer-directors love so much, delivering the results with one hand attempting to present the film with pure infectious non-ironic positivity, and the other constantly trying to draw your attention to just how much effort has gone into the thing and how knowledgeable its creative leads are of the classics they are so faithfully homaging. There’s an equal balance of breezy crowdpleasing joy and borderline-obnoxious deliberate attention-grabbing, and one’s level of appreciation for a well-executed elaborate classic Hollywood homage will determine whether they glom more onto the former or the latter part of that concoction.
Whilst La La Land is all about Golden Age Hollywood musicals – although this film also bites classic Fred Astaire/Ginger Rodgers dance sequences with an extended cutesiepoo tap-dance, just like the one in La La Land, which is freaky since both films were in production at roughly the same time as one another – Lost in Paris’ muse is that of mid-20s slapstick comedies. Our Canadian prologue occurs due to meek librarian Fiona (Gordon) receiving a letter, initially found in a bin, from her 88-year-old aunt Martha (Emmanuelle Riva), who moved to Paris decades back to become a dancer. Martha begs Fiona to join her in Paris as her carers are trying to put her in a nursing home against her wishes, so Fiona treks over to Paris for the first time only for Martha to not be home, and for comical circumstances to cause all of Fiona’s belongings to end up in the hands of homeless grifter and total nitwit Dom (Abel) who tags along infrequently somewhat against her will on her quest to find Martha.
Comical misunderstandings, close-calls, will-they-won’t-they romances, and oh so much physical slapstick abound, and the film refuses to take a single moment of it seriously. In the grand tradition of directors like Jacques Tati, Abel & Gordon drain almost all potential pathos out of their film and aim squarely for the funny bone via impeccably timed visual and physical comedy, each beat appearing and lasting precisely as long as they need to in order to extract the optimum amount of laughter – outside of that Canadian opening – and the right pinch of cruel fate to keep proceedings from becoming so light that they leave the Earth’s atmosphere all together. It’s Buster Keaton by occasional way of Franz Kafka, and whilst the presentation can at times be a mite too forceful in calling out to the viewer the blatant influences, Abel & Gordon kept me on side by the sheer commitment they display to the bit.
In its best moments, there’s a real infectious spring in the step of events on screen that cause the whole thing to be winningly charming, especially with the pair’s exemplary physical acting throughout. The love that they have for old-fashioned slapstick is most prevalent whenever the film settles down into an extended setpiece, where it stretches its legs and methodically stacks smaller gags on top of one another until this one scene feels like a full world in its own right. One in particular, when Dom blags his way onto a boat restaurant with the contents of Fiona’s purse, slowly piles on the various absurdities – Dom’s completely ill-fitting but required tie that he got through bribery, his table being situated next to the toilets and a speaker with bass so loud that everybody involuntarily jumps in time with the beat, his woeful pick-up game, and his frivolous over-spending on everything – resulting in a consistently hilarious sequence with a strong call-back punchline to finish.
Other digressions are bolder, louder, and deliberately quirkier – there’s the aforementioned tap-dance, Dom gets caught in a fishing line that drags him all along the waterfront for a solid minute, and Fiona’s backpack is permanently adorned with a flapping Canadian flag – and consequently more hit and miss, but the majority of the gags are genuinely funny. That said, they do betray a film that does not hang together well and lacks discipline as a feature-length narrative. Even at a scant 83 minutes, there isn’t really enough to Lost in Paris, particularly with its abject refusal to carry any theme or message deeper than “weren’t Charlie Chaplin slapstick comedies wonderful?” The extended setpieces, which also includes a great bit where Dom and Fiona inadvertently gate-crash a funeral and Dom improvises a nonsensical eulogy, stand out because of their largely self-contained nature and vacuum-sealed tightness in terms of characters and pacing. The narrative surrounding them, meanwhile, has too many go-nowhere subplots and characters that consciously feel like we’re merely marking time.
Lost in Paris, therefore, cannot escape a pervading sense once the credits roll that the film is ultimately insubstantial. An enjoyable aesthetic exercise and studiously worked-over in its every facet, but otherwise lacking in genuine fulfilment and effectively inessential. Still, I found it to be surprisingly fun and legitimately pleasant after a rocky start, and whilst it’s unlikely to cross my mind again in the near-future, I cannot deny the pure enjoyment I had whilst watching it, as I always enjoy and respect well-executed physical comedy. Worth checking out, just be prepared for its utter refusal to even slightly tone down the attention-calling aestheticism.
Lost in Paris is playing in UK cinemas from this Friday (24th November).