Two plus two is four. The color of the sky is blue. Some questions have easy answers. But the question, “What the heck just happened in the Netflix movie Paris Is Us?” is not one of them.
Paris Is Us begins conventionally enough. A boy and a girl attending a rave with a circle of friends link up just as their highs are coming down. Underneath the glare of the pink lights, they sparkle with mutual attraction. The meeting in the rave is overlaid with a conversation Anna (Noémie Schmidt) and Greg (Grégoire Isvarine) have soon after. “This is powerful. I’ve never felt anything like this. I don’t even know if this is real,” Greg whispers. This small temporal misalignment is our first indication that Paris Is Us isn’t concerned with linear timelines, but rather with memory. How do we sort out the important parts of our lives?
Naturally — being young, beautiful, and French — Anna and Greg plunge into a romance. If the movie has a plot (and it can be argued otherwise), then the plot consists of tracking the arc of Anna and Greg’s relationship. After showing their first meeting, the movie immediately jumps to a low point in their future. Greg has a beard, to demonstrate that the time has passed. Anna is smoking more, mostly to bother Greg. This scene is pivotal: Greg flippantly announces that he’s hoping to move to Barcelona to advance his career in an undisclosed, but clearly “serious,” field. Anna’s not keen on moving.
Clearly, Anna and Greg are on tracks moving at different speeds. As Anna puts it early on in their relationship, Greg is “normal.” He’s locked into a career path; he’s focused. Anna lives life like a reed in the breeze, swaying but not moving forward. She pauses to dance near street musicians, whereas Greg derides such entertainment. Anna's shirked off her studies and is content to spend her days as a waitress. Greg interprets this as a lack of ambition, of not wanting anything at all. As time goes on, they’re confronted by an unpleasant reality: They’re not who they once were.
All of this treads typical territory for movies about relationships – but all of this happens in the first 20 minutes of the movie. When Anna boards a plane at minute 23, all familiar tropes are abandoned. The plane seems to crash (or it goes through the motion of a movie plane crash – loud noise, spinning). Anna spins in her seat, and we then meet her blonde-wigged alter ego. The woman spins around counter-clockwise, as if to indicate that time is going to change.
At the very least, we know this: A plane does crash. Anna hears details of a terror-related cash she’s in a bar. But is Anna on that plane? According to the IMDb summary, no: "Anna misses the flight she should have taken to find Greg in Barcelona. The plane crashes. Taken in the vertigo of a death that has been narrowly avoided, she moves away from reality and the present. As his couple breaks up, Paris becomes the mirror of distress."
Then why was she on the plane? Was it just a fever dream? An intuition? Everything that follows that plane scene is jumbled — a mix of Anna and Greg in Paris looking unhappy; scenes of Anna and Greg at the beach looking happy; and, most importantly, Anna's monologues. Lots of them. Soon, dialogue between the couple is replaced by Anna's musings about the nature of reality. Is reality just a projection, as she had thought when she was a child? Are we just fixtures of another universe's version of the Sims?
Maybe we are. Maybe that's why Anna is sometimes shown in an empty theater, dressed up like a famous performer, all cameras on her. She's the star of a game. She, as the stranger she meets in the graveyard says, is special. Either way: Greg, in the present, is no longer the focus of her story. She's interested in past Greg, and his effects on her emotional state. Paris Is Us is about how the people in our lives linger, even after they've gone.
Aside from the images of Anna and Greg, the movie's running motif is Paris itself — the city where Anna and Greg's relationship grew and fell apart. This is a Paris where, as Greg says, tourists go to gawk at sights — but it's also a tense Paris. A place where bombs go off intermittently. Where crowds gather to mourn collectively. Where people lay wreaths and posters around monuments, replacing a history of glory with a present of grief.
Most fascinatingly, all of the gatherings shown in the film are completely real. Paris Is Us was filmed between 2014 to 2017. Director Élisabeth Vogler juxtaposed fictional narrative with real-world events, like the march in solidarity for Charlie Hebdo and the response to the November 2015 Paris attacks.
Anna's emotional turmoil is matched — and exacerbated — by the world around her. “We wanted to capture the time we’re living in. We wanted to express what we’ve felt in the last few years — what we felt politically, what we felt emotionally," screenwriter Paul Saisset told Kickstarter. The unconventional film was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, and later bought byNetflix.
Paris Is Us is more like a moving quilt than a movie. Its story is unfurled through images, not language; the story can be read in multiple directions and still make sense. Fittingly, the movie doesn't offer an easy (or linear) ending. The final scene returns to Anna and Greg's first meeting. Instead of moving forward to an uncertain future, Anna (in a blond wig) walks through a kind of time-wall (think Interstellar's fifth dimension) and goes back to the rave. There are no resolutions here — just an escape into an easier past.
Maybe it takes a movie like Paris Is Us, which throws out all conventions of narrative form, to actually speak to the lived experience of today's fragmenting world.