(director: Wim Wenders; screenwriters: Sam Shepard/L.M. Kit Carson; cinematographer: Robby Müller; editor: Peter Przygodda; music: Ry Cooder; cast: Harry Dean Stanton (Travis), Nastassja Kinski (Jane), Bernhard Wicki (Doctor Ulmer), Dean Stockwell (Walt), Aurore Clément (Anne), Bernhard Wicki (Doctor), Hunter Carson (Hunter); Runtime: 147; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Anatole Dauman/Don Guest; Twentieth Century Fox; 1984-West Germany/France-in English)
“Compelling contemporary Western.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Wim Wenders (“Hammett”/”The State of Things”/”Alice In The Cities”) directs and Sam Shepard writes the script (it was also adapted by L.M. Kit Carson) for this overly ambitious but at times compelling contemporary Western that debunks the John Ford “Old West” myth in The Searchers, or at least brings to it a more updated perception. It also brings a European (Paris) sensibility and aesthetics to its Southwestern locale that includes a barren Mexican desert, a suburban consumer driven L.A., and a diverse Texas that has a skyscraper big city like Houston stand out as a monument for capitalism among all its small nondescript poor sister dusty towns that includes the rural Paris (which we see in a photo as a place that has an empty lot that the film’s protagonist purchased because it was where his parents first made love and where he believes he was conceived). This slow moving and epic long road movie in its simplicity is about the breakdown in communication between family members, and how a man separated from a wife he deeply loved enigmatically tries to put his life back together after having a mental breakdown.
The film’s startling opening has an unkempt bearded Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) wearing a red baseball hat wandering in a disoriented state in the Mexican desert and collapsing on the American side of the border, where a sleazy German-accented doctor (Bernhard Wicki, the German director) in a clinic contacts his successful upwardly mobile billboard businessman younger brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) in LA to come pick him up. Travis is purposefully mute and fails to answer Walt’s questions of where he was the past four years, as they take the long drive back to LA. The broken down, docile man’s life is slowly pieced together and the pains of his journey begin to be put together in fits and starts as he regains his memory and voice. Living with Walt and his French born wife Anne (Aurore Clément) is Travis’ son Hunter (Hunter Carson). He was brought by some unknown party and placed on their doorsteps when Travis vanished four years ago and his younger wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) had also vanished.
Back in LA there are tender scenes of a reluctant child, living in material comfort with kindly surrogate parents, getting to know his estranged real father whom he is initially ashamed of because of his shabby appearance. How father and son communicate is delicately done through role playing and reaching for tender heart spots that are gently gained without pressure. When Anne tells Travis that Jane wires money once a month from Houston to a bank account for her son’s future, Travis journeys to Houston by car with a willing Travis–who is anxious to be with his real mother again. Travis trails Jane to where she works in a peep-show parlor, where men by telephone communicate with woman through a two-way mirror. Each tells what went wrong in their tempestuous marriage as they speak at length about their troubled past separated by the glass. These scenes are the film’s center piece (though I preferred the opening half, when the dialogue was sparse and I didn’t have to watch a miscast Kinski try to act). The filmmakers are trying to say something about how hectic the world has now become that we need technology and commerce to reach the other, when in the old days men and women had time to speak and listen to each other. It ends on an unresolved note, but I believe it leaves us with a more rosy picture than one would expect from following such bleak and puzzling events.
Much like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Wenders views the American landscape from a fresh European perspective and makes us see things about our country we might not see or care to see. The desert photography by cinematographer Robby Müller is stunning, while the moody music by Ry Cooder is just right for this contemplative drama about the loss of a loved one through lack of communication. Wenders adds his own infusion of German romanticism to the western locale to counter our hero’s broken spirit and initial state of hopelessness. Stanton gives a marvelous performance as the lost soul and Stockwell gives an excellent performance in a supporting role as someone who cares about his brother and doesn’t know how to help him in other than material ways.
Paris, Texas won the Grand Prize at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.
REVIEWED ON 12/31/2005 GRADE: B+