April 24, 2013
What would Woody Allen do?
“Paris-Manhattan,” whose respective residents consider their city to be the center of the known universe, is the title of an appealing French movie by a first-time feature film director.
The movie centers around Alice Ovitz, a Jewish pharmacist in Paris, and her worshipful obsession with the American director and actor Woody Allen, who is strongly associated with his native Manhattan.
Alice’s passion is unrequited, as she never tries to contact Allen, who, however, makes a cameo appearance toward the end of the film.
Alice, played by the stunning Alice Taglioni, studies Allen’s movies with the dedication of a yeshiva student poring over Talmud passages and frequently offers DVDs of the master’s works to her pharmacy customers who come in complaining of depression or anxiety.
In her bedroom, she keeps an oversized poster of her hero and converses with him about problems of love, life and career moves.
She poses her questions and the poster Allen responds with appropriate lines taken from his various movies. It’s a shtick lifted from “Play It Again, Sam,” in which Humphrey Bogart’s Rick (“Casablanca”) counsels Allen on how to upgrade his love life.
Alice could use some of Rick’s advice herself, for between running the pharmacy and watching Allen’s movies, she hardly has time for dates, though her father frequently reminds her she isn’t getting any younger.
The father, Isaac Ovitz (Michel Aumont) is married to an alcoholic wife, so he takes on the role of the family’s Yiddishe Mameh, bugging his daughter about finding a mate and evaluating potential suitors.
Into all of this appears Victor (Patrick Bruel), of rough-hewn appearance but with a sensitive soul, who has come to install a burglar alarm system in Alice’s pharmacy.
The system emits clouds of chloroform, which knock out any intruder, but also any innocent bystander in the neighborhood.
Victor starts romancing Alice but faces two obstacles. First, he admits that he has (gasp) never seen a Woody Allen movie, and second, he has a formidable rival in the suave and sophisticated Pierre.
The only way Victor figures he can outscore the competition is to give Alice the one thing she desires most — a face-to-face meeting with the actual Woody Allen, in the flesh.
So crucial was Allen’s participation to the project that had he refused, the film’s director and screenwriter, Sophie Lellouche, would have dropped the whole project, Lellouche said in a transoceanic phone call.
As it turned out, enlisting Allen’s cooperation wasn’t nearly as formidable a task as she had feared.
On a trip to New York, she tracked Allen down at a nightclub where he regularly plays clarinet with fellow jazz musicians. Allen asked Lellouche for her script, and in a few days called back to say that he was available for a cameo role — uncredited and unpaid, yet.
It helped that Allen loves Paris, where the film was shot, a sentiment reciprocated by the French, who esteem him even more than do his American countrymen, according to Lellouche. “We love his intellectual humor,” she observed.
Lellouche drew heavily on her own background in writing the screenplay for the movie. “I come from a traditional Jewish family; we get together every Friday night for a Shabbat dinner,” she said.
“My father is exactly as I show him in the film, but my mother is certainly not an alcoholic — as a matter of fact, she never drinks.”
To her father’s relief, Sophie married when she was 28; her son just celebrated his bar mitzvah, and she also has an 11-year-old daughter.
Lellouche said there is much of herself in Alice Ovitz. “I am a dreamer and poetic; I feel that anything can happen anytime,” she said. “But the movie’s Alice is much more dynamic than I am.”
Reviews of “Paris-Manhattan” have ranged the spectrum from ecstatic to devastating, but Lellouche professes not to be bothered by the bad ones. “I’m very optimistic,” she said, “and in any case, it is not my aim to make movies everyone will like.”
Lellouche’s only previous film credit is a short movie, titled “Dieu, Que la Nature Est Bien Faite,” translated somewhat awkwardly as “God, That Nature Is Well Done.” Her original concept for that film was of a woman as the central character, who went out on a lot of blind dates and developed the ability to tell within two minutes what was on the man’s mind.
Because the idea seemed pretty obvious and repetitive, she switched her protagonist to a man who could tell what his woman companions were thinking.
“Paris-Manhattan” opens May 3 at three Laemmle theaters, the Music Hall in Beverly Hills, Town Center in Encino and Playhouse in Pasadena.