Wim Wenders’ visionary Palme d’Or winning film Paris, Texas is the culmination of the director’s many years of hard work capturing life on the road. This poetic study of what it means for one to belong in the world transcends language and reality.
Paris,Texas feels as if it has been sculpted from molten lava and placed on the inside of a fluorescent lightbulb. It is meticulously shot, written, and edited with such precision that it doesn’t even feel like you’re watching life on this planet. It holds its own style of otherworldly beauty that has never been seen before, and will probably never be seen again.
Immediately, the film examines the juxtaposition between permanence and temporality. Forged objects are carefully defined. The mountains, cars, roads, buildings, and billboards all appear fully formed as the marks of civilization and natural history. Barring unforeseen destruction, they are here to stay. When any of these objects appear on screen, they are in crystal-clear focus. Each line or contour leaves a distinct mark. No matter how far away an object is from the camera, its shape endures.
In contrast to the defined objects, there are shapeless elements such as dust, haze, rain, and fog, which add layers of texture and movement over top the fixed environment. This reinforces the theme that reality is easily obscured by uncertainty. In Paris, Texas, humanity attempts to navigate this obstructed terrain – one road at a time.
When Travis, Paris, Texas’ lead, played by the supremely haggard Harry Dean Stanton, is first shown alone stumbling across the Southwestern desert, all types of earthly particles whirl around him. Even after his brother Walt, played by Dean Stockwell, is finally able to track him down and drag him to captivity, the dust never settles around him. Travis’ gaze is one of a broken man who has lost everything, including his will to live.
Robby Müller, Wenders’ long time cinematographer, captures the various moods within the film through the stunning use of both natural and artificial light. From pastel-coloured cloudbursts and bleeding sunsets to patterned walls and neon storefronts, lighting plays a prevalent character in the film. The light enters every scene in unpredictable ways. Sometimes, it is inescapably present while at, other times, it sneaks into a corner of the shot.
Paris, Texas is a challenging film because of how exacting it is. The images are so detailed that you constantly find yourself looking for clues to the film’s mystery within them. There are so many cuts to different scenes that you, like the characters in the story, start to feel isolated from what you’re looking at. Wenders tricks the audience into searching for a rationale that simply isn’t there. At one point, when Travis and his estranged son Hunter hit the road together it starts to take on an agreeable tone. But, the journey ends before any string of jokes can be cracked. This is when the film moves into devastatingly painful territory.
All of the tragic feelings climax in the final act of the film. Jane, Travis’ love interest that haunts the entire picture finally comes into view. Played by the angelic Nastassja Kinski, Jane’s overwhelming beauty and presence cannot be accurately conveyed in any photograph. There is simply no one like her on this earth. The thought of losing her is enough to drive a man like Travis crazy. At first it’s hard to imagine how she’s able to do this, but Wenders shows us why.
This happens in the middle of a conversation that she has with Travis on the inside of a peep show booth. Jane is unaware that it is Travis that’s talking to her because they are in two rooms separated by a one-way mirror. He sits in darkness on one side, while she sits fully illuminated underneath the lights on her side. Her bleached blonde hair is in perfect contrast with her black expressive eyes. She has a sweet playful smile and cheerful Southern American drawl. Travis uses a phone-line that transmits his voice to a speaker inside Jane’s portion of the booth. They do not attempt to make much eye contact through the mirror because Travis turns the back of his chair away from her so he can focus on what he wants to say while Jane sits on an angle.
Almost the entirety of the film is shot from Travis’ perspective, and this holds true to the majority of this scene as well. The camera sits on Travis’ side of the booth with Jane’s aura emanating from behind the mirror. As their conversation begins to move into more personal territory, Jane’s eyes shift nervously. She grows more visibly uncomfortable as Travis tells a story alluding to their relationship. Then, in a couple of fleeting and shocking mid-conversation moments, the camera ventures to Jane’s side of the mirror. The background noise grows louder with a static-y buzz. The closer the camera inches towards Jane, the tenser the air is. It is such a sudden shift in tone that you can feel Jane’s entire soul collapsing into the pit of her stomach. The tone of Jane’s perspective is so different from Travis’ that it is immediately unsettling. This incredible distance between the two former lovers becomes at once tangible, inconceivable, and most of all, heartbreaking.
On the Road: The Films of Wim Wenders is currently taking place at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. To purchase tickets for the 5 pm screening of Paris,Texas on Saturday, February 6th, visit the link here. To purchase tickets for other films part of the retrospective, visit the program page.
Additionally, be sure to check out the sidebar program, Wim’s Films: American Friends & Foreign Influences, running until March 17th. “This deluxe survey, curated by James Quandt, Senior Programmer, TIFF Cinematheque, spotlights fifteen of “Wim’s Films”—road movies and noirs, venerated classics and films maudits—gathered both from evidence (Wenders’ own list of favourites) and inference (of his obvious influences and affinities).” The full guide can be found here.
Here is TIFF’s trailer for the retrospective, On the Road: The Films of Wim Wenders: