Lost in Paris: Goofy to a Fault?

Directed by Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon
Oscilloscope Laboratories, 83 minutes, NR
(In English and French with subtitles)
★★ 1/2     

Forget the Hollywood rating system. In the age of the Internet, users rate movies as OMG, LOL, or POS. Lost in Paris suggests we ought to add a WTF category. It may not be the campiest film ever made, but its tents are in the front row of the bivouac grounds. Its charm is that it’s quirky and strange; its weakness is that both qualities are served in gluttonous portions.

Let me set the tone by describing the opening scene. The camera looks down upon a village encased in apocalyptic amounts of snow. We gaze upon a quite obvious toy-sized set before we are taken inside a library where Fiona (Fiona Gordon) sits behind a desk looking like she is where fashion went to die. Then we are treated to a gag torn from the pages of the W.C. Fields film A Fatal Glass of Beer (1933). A door opens, fake snow flies everywhere, and the wind blasts with such force that everyone and everything is blown sideways. The door closes and all returns to normal. And by ‘normal,’ I mean absurd. Cue some Canadian accents.

The person entering the room delivers a soiled letter that was accidentally thrown into a garbage can rather than placed in the post box. It’s from Fiona’s elderly aunt Martha (Emmanuel Riva), a once-famous dancer but now 88 years old and trying to keep French authorities from squirreling her away in a nursing home. (She has a unique way of dodging authorities and it’s one of many reoccurring jokes.) So it’s off to Paris for Fiona, who apparently has never been off the tundra before.

If you plan on watching this film, surrender all logic right now, as things are about to get so absurd they would make Eugene Ionesco check into rehab. We next see Fiona in Paris, her stick-like figure crammed into a clingy green dress, a pair of cheap tennis shoes upon her feet, her face framed by glasses dubbed ugly by Geeks United, her hair crimped and curled by a mad hairdresser, and hefting an enormous orange backpack. Cut to the next visual joke—it takes a contortionist to get it through the Metro turnstile. Oh—the backpack is also flying a Canadian flag from its frame. 

The best way to describe the rest of the film is to say everything gets sillier and that its loose (as in very loose) structure is built around miscommunications, misassumptions, misfortunes, mistaken identities, misconnections, slapstick routines, and repeated jokes. Among the latter are setups involving Martha’s escapes from French authorities, a neighbor’s missing sock, chance encounters with a Mountie, a persistent dog, an even more persistent street bum (Dominique Abel), and the McGarrigle sisters singing Loudon Wainwright III’s “Swimming Song.”* That song reoccurs because people and things have a habit of falling into the Seine, with the objects resurfacing later in hands other than those that first dropped them.

Gordon plays the gal from snowy Hicksville set adrift in the City of Light with wide-eyed fascination and goofy desperation. She is literally lost when separated from her backpack, clothing, money, and passport, but gains the bum Dom, who won’t leave her alone and whom she finds alternately annoying, useful, and kinda cute. (Physically he puts one in mind of Roberto Benigni.)** Most of the action is set along the Seine, at Pont Grenelle (where there is a smaller version of Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty), at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, and atop the Eiffel Tower.

Really, though, neither the plot nor action is much more than an excuse to string together gags and surreal situational comedy. At its best, Lost in Paris evokes the preposterousness of Jacques Tati and the nimble-footed physical routines of Harold Lloyd, though far too often it’s like a cloying old Jerry Lewis vehicle or one of those painful Saturday Night Live sketches that went on twice as long as it should have.

I probably would have walked out had I been in a theater and I contemplated switching off the DVD at least half a dozen times. So what kept me in my lounge chair? Lost in Paris is indeed a WTF film. It’s so odd that I found myself watching like a voyeur at a disaster scene. Just when I thought I couldn’t take anymore, something utterly charming occurred—like Riva chancing upon Norman (Pierre Richard), an old dance partner and lover, and doing an impromptu seated soft shoe routine, he in a hospital gown and ancient shoes, and she in cast-off clothing, wool socks, and Birkenstocks. There are also situations akin to those in the old Airplane movies that are just so dumb you can’t resist them, though you feel guilty as hell afterward. I mean, can one not watch slapstick inside a crematorium?

After a time I admired the moxie of Abel and Gordon for being able to poke so much fun at themselves. Their physicality is also impressive, as evidenced in everything from pratfalls to an impromptu tango. If you can put yourself in the mood for wall-to-wall silliness, I can give this a qualified recommendation. It’s unlikely you will view anything weirder in 2018, so score one for uniqueness. I’m glad though, that Riva got to make one film before she died in early 2017. It looks like she had fun in Lost in Paris, but I wouldn’t want this fart cushion of a movie to be the last for such an important icon of French cinema.

Rob Weir

* That makes more sense than most things in the film. Kate McGarrigle was once married to Wainwright.

** In life, Gordon and Abel are married. She’s actually Australian and he’s Belgian.

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