My favourite Cannes winner: Paris, Texas

Continuing our series in which writers choose their favourite Palme d’Or victor, Guy Lodge praises Wim Wenders’ sweetly desolate road movie: a desert flower of a film, that invented Americana

According to actor Dirk Bogarde – the president of the Cannes competition jury in 1984 – festival bosses were less than delighted with the selection of New German Cinema graduate Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas for that year’s Palme d’Or. Writing in his autobiography, Backcloth, Bogarde recalls the instructions he was given from the top: “We were to choose films which would please a family audience, not ones which would appeal to ‘a few students and a handful of faux intellectuals. Family entertainment for all the world markets.’”

Hours before the award ceremony, the authorities were aghast when Bogarde presented them with his crew’s decisions. “What about the American films? There are no American awards?” he quotes. “You think that this … Paris, Texas is family entertainment?”

One has to wonder precisely what families the festival selectors had in mind when they assembled a competition lineup that also included Lars Von Trier’s The Element of Crime, Theo Angelopoulos’s Voyage to Cythera and John Huston’s Under the Volcano. By these austere standards, perhaps Bogarde’s jurors (Isabelle Huppert, Stanley Donen and Ennio Morricone among them) accidentally met the festival’s curious brief as best they could: Wenders’ sweetly desolate desert flower of a film may not be family entertainment per se, but it’s as acute and exquisite a film as has ever been made about family itself – a broken one, in this case, which can only be healed by further heartbreak. As for their “no American awards” objection, I can hardly think of a film more in thrall to the flat gingerbread landscape of the new American west, ribboned with tar and neon, echoing with lonesome blues riffs. Sometimes it takes a foreigner to forge true Americana, even in the forbidding Reaganite environment of the mid-1980s.

Cannes juries can be as capable of worthy-minded myopia as Academy award voters, yet this is one year they called it just right. Paris, Texas isn’t just the most enduringly beautiful and widely cherished title from that year’s respectable competition crop, but a film that remains, for this critic, the crowning achievement of Wenders’ speckled, frequently brilliant career: the one in which his dual inclinations toward aesthetic grandeur and emotional intimacy find their most serene meeting point, outclassing even such subsequent masterclasses as Wings of Desire (which netted him the best director prize at the festival three years later) and Pina. It’s a cinematic peak, too, for the spare, sandy writing of Sam Shepard, the actor-playwright whose tough dramatic sculpting of American male crisis hasn’t always translated as well to the screen as it does to the stage: Wenders and Shepard couldn’t repeat the trick two decades later in their arch, affected comedy Don’t Come Knocking.

‘The gold-hearted saloon girl in this western’ … Natassja Kinski in Paris, Texas.
‘The gold-hearted saloon girl in this western’ … Natassja Kinski in Paris, Texas. Photograph: Twentieth Century Fox/Everett/Rex Features

Wenders brought a certain European elegance to Shepard’s intellectual machismo (the title may refer to an individual town in the US, but it also alludes to the film’s own transatlantic identity). But the men share a romantic fascination with the road, that asphalt spine of American geography and culture alike, leading travellers either to the country’s heart or its great beyond. For dessicated protagonist Travis (so searchingly played by the great Harry Dean Stanton), it takes him in both directions: reunited with his son after going walkabout in the Lone Star desert, cueing a search for his similarly unmoored wife, he can only locate his family home by leaving it.

Paris, Texas is a road movie: that most essentially American of genres, so beloved by Wenders that he named his first production company after it, midway through his celebrated road-movie trilogy of Alice in the Cities, The Wrong Move and Kings of the Road. But it’s also, in a muted, horse-free manner, a western. Beneath its cool urban trappings, it’s a story of detached men scouring the frontier to restore domestic order to a world out of balance. Nostalgic for the stability and rugged individuality of an old west that has since been irrevocably cluttered with the billboards, petrol stations and blinking identikit motels of modern living, Travis chases some semblance of the American dream, not for himself but for a son he barely knows – retreating back into the wilderness when it seems his work is done. As cowboys go, he’s a self-defeating hero; his grimy trucker cap could be either a white or black Stetson.

A selection of Ry Cooder’s music from the film Paris, Texas

There’s a gold-hearted saloon girl in this western too: Jane, the strayed, mistreated wife and mother played by Nastassja Kinski, among the most incandescently artificial blondes in all cinema. Instead of ruffled bloomers, she wears a hot-pink angora jumper; instead of a saloon, she plies her trade in a dingy Houston peepshow booth. It’s that confined space, sliced in half by a one-way mirror, that hosts the film’s name-making scene, as Travis, having tracked her down, relates the story of their bad romance in minute, self-mutilating detail. You’d call it a monologue if Kinski’s perfect face weren’t constantly responding to every scarring revelation; cinematographer Robby Muller, a veritable sorcerer of light throughout, shoots this dual confessional (half-spoken, half-silent) with ingenious fluidity, every word mediated by the mirror’s foil-blue glimmer.

These few minutes would constitute a complete, astonishing short on their own, yet they merely mark the climax of a film with reckless beauty to burn even in its incidental passages. Any passing mention of Paris, Texas conjures a gallery of vivid, isolated images – and sounds, thanks to Ry Cooder’s much-appropriated, much-imitated slide-guitar score – that prompt a prickly feeling in the tear ducts. So many mood pieces sustain their mood only as far as the closing credits; the blissful melancholy of Paris, Texas endures with recall and association, however distant from one’s last viewing. Cannes has rewarded many a great film, but none that is quite so permanently, ever-retrievably embedded in my sense memory.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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