Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon’s Lost in Paris pivots on a classic fish-out-of-water situation. Fiona (Gordon), who lives in a Canadian snowscape out of a storybook, receives a lost letter from her Aunt Martha (Emmanuelle Riva), who’s lived in Paris for 30 years. Martha pleads to Fiona for help with those who’re trying to put her in a home, as she wishes to keep her flat, insisting on her mental competency while depositing the letter in a trash bin rather than a mailbox. Unaware of how much time has passed since Martha wrote the letter, Fiona rushes to Paris to find Martha and gets entangled with Dom (Abel), a homeless man with an ingenious knack for survival.
The film is divided into chapters that are respectively devoted to Fiona, Dom, and Martha, who each have a mini adventure that cleverly overlaps with the others. Abel and Gordon have a flair for jokes with unexpected curlicues. In a failed attempt at seduction, Dom buys Fiona three bottles of champagne that wind up in a river. Dom later spots those bottles and drinks them by the Eiffel Tower alone in a sequence that segues from the amusing to the bittersweet. When Fiona loses her awkwardly large red backpack, it falls into the hands of Dom, who spends Fiona’s money and dresses in her clothes, fashioning himself as a not-quite-chic man about the city. Dom can now get into a restaurant by the sea, but he’s placed near the bathroom door and climbed over by an employee who juggles absurdly tangled electrical wire.
Married in real life, Abel and Gordon have a blissful chemistry that informs their consciously slight and lighter-than-air gags with a cumulative emotional undertow. They’re charmingly odd performers who cast themselves as avatars of the misfits in life who yearn for the romantic connection that cinema promises. Fiona is tall and stands perpetually erect, her priggish posture intensified by that backpack, which has a Canadian national flag jutting out of a pocket. She’s a bookworm, with an office job in the mountains, doing her impression of a tourist. By contrast, Dom’s a fly-by-night sort who suffers life’s punches with a comic imperturbability that recalls Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Dom softens Fiona while she lends him solidity. On the sidelines is Martha, played by the legendary Riva, who offers testament to the joys of remaining unpredictable and a little crazy in advanced age.
Lost in Paris abounds in whimsy that, for the most part, isn’t irritatingly precious—a feat that’s harder to pull off than it appears. The playfully arch framing, indebted to the cinema of Chaplin, Jacques Tati, Wes Anderson, and many others, is grounded by the moving rootlessness of the characters, the legacy of French cinema (confirmed by the presence of Riva as well as that of Pierre Richard in a small but pivotal role), and an abundance of moments that surpass one’s expectations. In the film’s best scene, Dom asks Fiona to dance in a restaurant, and we’re primed to expect a waltz of dorks, only to witness an exhilaratingly precise tango that testifies to the interior passions driving soloists who find themselves in a duet. Later, when Dom couples with Martha while dreaming of Fiona, we see Dom’s tent bouncing up and down the street to and fro, aestheticizing their exertions in a ridiculous yet poignant fashion that parodies cinema’s often coy sex symbolism. Throughout Lost in Paris, Abel and Gordon turn romance into a democratizing game of tag that’s sustained by an encouraging unpredictability: You never know when you’re it.