It's the fourth film made by the husband-and-wife team of Dominique Abel (of Belgium) & Fiona Gordon (of Australia), who write, direct, produce, and star in this tribute to other writer-director-producer-stars of old: namely Charles Chaplin and Jacques Tati. And if their other three films have been even half this good at creating intricate visual jokes and showcasing their rubber-limbed physical performance skills, than shame on me, now and forever, for having slept on their career till now, and even only finally catching up with Lost in Paris mostly by chance.
The plot is simple and clearly meant just to facilitate everything else: in Canada, Fiona (Gordon, who has gone by her own name in all four of the duo's films) receives word that her aunt Martha (the French cinema icon Emmanuelle Riva, in the last of her roles to premiere before her death in January 2017) is about to be forced into a nursing home. This is of some concern to Fiona, but mostly she seems to take it as a reasonable excuse to finally fulfill her childhood dream of visiting Paris, where Martha moved many years ago. Upon arriving, Fiona almost immediately falls into the Seine and loses all of her documentation, which is picked up by a homeless man named Dom (Abel, who has only gone by his own name in three of the duo's films). Fiona and Dom's paths cross, and cross again, and this follows all the usual beats of a romantic comedy: she's irritated that he's a thief, he falls in love with her and tries to make amends, she thinks he accidentally gets burned to death in a crematorium, he has sex with Martha without knowing she's Fiona's aunt, and the rest of that boilerplate stuff.
Seriously, though, it's a by-the-books romcom, and at least some of the things that sound like they should be aggressively, offensively quirky are so normalised by the film's wonderful aesthetic that it almost doesn't even register that "homless guy, without waking up, accidentally has sex with 88-year-old" is needlessly convoluted and potentially off-putting. The film really is all about Gordon and Abel's impeccable performances, and the carefully-tuned style that infuses every damn shot of the movie. Comparing one mostly-worldless physical comedy shot in Paris to the filmography of Tati is offensively obvious, but it's also the best single point of comparison I can make: the use of specific and precise camera angles to craft gags, and the wholly unstressed presence of jokes in the background, are Tati-derived, if they came from anywhere. There's one particular joke about diners in a fancy restaurant being jolted in time to the bass throb of overly loud background music that could have fit without the slightest need for alteration anywhere in Play Time (indeed, the fact that this gag takes place in a fancy restaurant strikes me as a deliberate reference to Play Time in and of itself).
The Chaplin influence lies more in the performances and the characters. There's the obvious: Dom is a charming vagrant, about as transparent a modern version of the little tramp as it gets without the hat and mustache. But it goes deeper, into Lost in Paris's generally sweet view of people, and its happiness at letting them have moments of pure playful joy, just because movies can do that (e.g. Martha and a man named Duncan, played by Pierre Richard, get to stop the movie in its track for a couple of minutes to enact a mock dance, with the filmmakers offering up a close-up of feet without cutting away to allow us to enjoy the simple choreography, upbeat music, and gentle flirtation of the moment; it's a direct descendant of Chaplin's "Roll Dance" from The Gold Rush). And of course it's in the fearless physicality of both Abel and Gordon, who fling their bodies around the screen like marionettes being plucked by unseen puppeteer, all gangly limbs and boneless motions, both alone and together. Their shared dance scene, fluid and even graceful despite both participant swinging their legs around like semaphore flags, is both a highlight of physical acting and the funniest thing I've seen in a movie all year.
And then there's the purely cinematic: the way the film embraces the artificiality of its stagebound Canada (the bitter north wind is evoked in another pretty great bit of slapstick acting, one that nods at another classic of film comedy: the fantastic 1933 short The Fatal Glass of Beer, directed by Clyde Bruckman, produced by Mack Sennett, and starring W.C. Fields), or the way that Nicholas Girault's production design and Claire Dubien's costumes (Dubien also did the hair and makeup design, and that makes so much sense once you've seen how these elements all work to accentuate the stars' bodies) work together to create tightly controlled, color-corrected spaces. It's a film of bold primary hues, with props, sets, and people fitting together in mildly fussy composition that are more about drawing visual lines through space rather than creating Wes Anderson-style tableaux.
It's all amazingly delightful and playful as cinematic eye candy; quite frivolous as a story, but who needs a story when you have a playground? My only real complaint, and I like to think that is a mild one, is that the film runs out of ingenuity before it runs out of running time (and at just 83 minutes, the film is certainly not unreasonably long), and while great moments are kept in reserve so that it never exactly turns saggy (the above-mentioned dance; Dom's drunken conversation with the Statue of Liberty replica on the Île aux Cygnes; a bit of physical nonsense on the Eiffel Tower that evokes all those "death-defying acrobatics on construction girders" cartoons of the '30s and '40s), it does hit a point where it seems a little bit surprising that the film is still going on. Perhaps re-viewings will help with that, and I do greatly look forward to re-viewing this film, and catching up with Abel & Gordon's previous work as well. Because this is truly delightful, and in a world that has largely evolved away from the serious business of clownish physical comedy, truly rare.