Toward the end of Paris Can Wait, Jacques (Arnaud Viard) makes a comment to Anne (Diane Lane), admiring the photographs on her digital camera, praising her restraint, and her willingness to let people imagine what’s outside the tight frame of the pictures she snaps. The scene represents a pretty transparently self-congratulatory gesture: Anne, the wife of harried film producer Michael (Alec Baldwin), is modeled on Coppola herself, and Paris Can Wait, by the director’s own admission, is an autobiographical film.
This forthrightness is sometimes an asset in Coppola’s film, as it allows for the dynamic of the central relationship—Anne’s flirtation with Jacques, her husband’s bubbly French business associate—to be conducted on the frank, morally unburdened terms of a self-defining married woman. But often the director over-explains and belabors her best ideas, betraying Jacques’s meta suggestion of a commitment to ambiguity and supplanting the breezy, in-the-moment chemistry between the two principals with dutiful plot points.
Sometimes it feels as if Coppola is just too close to this material to deliver it with the proper consideration. Anne’s heartfelt confession of her infant son’s death, for example, is telegraphed gracefully and meaningfully beforehand, which leaves the actual confession, when it does arrive, feeling mostly airless. Coppola did herself lose a child, which adds an undeniable resonance to the scene, but hackneyed screenwriter clichés fight against it: “I wear this to remind me,” Anne says, pointing to a locket containing her son’s picture.
Sometimes, a certain obliviousness just seems to be inherent in Paris Can Wait. This is, after all, a film about two successful, wealthy people eating prohibitively expensive cuisine and drinking fine wines all through the French countryside. It’s also a film that demonstrates a troubling tendency to characterize people of the service class as nuisances: Anne let’s out a sigh of frustration when a bellhop fails to answer a call to a hotel’s front desk, leaving her with the responsibility of carrying luggage downstairs herself, and an antagonistic security guard at a textiles museum sternly confiscates Anne’s camera only to return it remorsefully when he’s smooth-talked by Jacques.
Anne and Jacques are often the only people in the spaces they inhabit, from restaurants to a Roman aqueduct. It’s almost uncanny how isolated they are from the rest of the world, but that isolation makes sense in that Paris Can Wait is at its best when the film carries itself as a more distinctly feminine take on Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, or even Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy: as a frequently real-time story that explores the frictions between two people captivated by each other. Lane is given a tough role here, as Anne tows the line between resistance to and indulgence of Jacques’s flirtations. And while Lane’s articulation of Anne’s transitioning feelings isn’t seamless, she projects the right kind of caustic humor to turn a line like “Guilt is bad for your digestion” into an empowering act of destabilization.
Paris Can Wait is ultimately feminist in its gender politics: Anne refuses to let revelations such as Michael’s possible infidelity, or Jacques’s earnest encouragement, have any meaningful influence on her decision to pursue romance outside out marriage. The ending even strikes the right balance of control and abandon for the character, with a cheeky, fourth-wall-breaking acknowledgment that feels like a throwback to a 1970s cinematic grammar that’s rarely indulged by female directors. But that synthesis of form and intention isn’t the norm in the film, which leaves the more lasting impression of a story that takes place in its own elitist and hermetically sealed world, and of Coppola not particularly interested in imagining anything outside it.