Harry Dean Stanton
2 Hrs., 25 Mins.
Paris, Texas November 8, 2018
phone and receives the message, he’s dumbfounded: Years ago, he’d given up on his sibling, convinced that he was, perhaps, dead.
Walt’s wife, a Frenchwoman named Anne (Aurore Clément), has qualms about Travis’ impending return. Though she understands that her husband has an obligation to help his thought-lost brother, she worries that his reappearance will rattle the life to which she’s grown accustomed. When Travis, along with his much-younger wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), essentially evaporated from their lives, Anne and Walt adopted the son left behind by the departed, Hunter (Hunter Carson). She thinks of him as her son.
Immediately, Walt drives down south to pick up his brother. The trip from West Texas to the suburbs of Los Angeles is a tense one. For the first few days, Travis, who was thought mute by Ulmer, refuses to speak. Walt uncomfortably prattles, fearful of the silence. When Travis does decide to take advantage of the wonders of his vocal cords, unused for nearly half a decade, he is indirect and reticent. He won’t let on what he’s been doing since his sibling saw him last. But he will talk about things as seemingly inconsequential as Paris, Texas, the “city” where he was putatively conceived and where he recently purchased some property. Would you like to see a picture?
We never really do find out what Travis has been doing for all these years. But we do find out what provoked his disappearance, and what happened to Jane. We additionally watch Travis try to reintegrate himself into the lives of his family members, who are all, understandably, vexed by his purposeful vanishing but relieved to have him back. He will also rebuild his relationship with his abandoned son, who is skeptical of his reappearance until everyone sits in Walt and Anne’s catalogue-decorated living room and watches home movies.
The home movies represent happier times. But Paris, Texas (1984) isn’t the sort of film interested in restoring them. Directed by the West German filmmaker Wim Wenders, the movie is, as noted by the bulk of its admirers, a movie about loss. A righting of one’s wrongs is a major part of the narrative — Travis looks to track down Jane and help her mend her fractured relationship with Hunter — but it is not so ingenuous as to be a quasi-comeback story.
Paris, Texas was written by Sam Shepard, an actor and playwright with a proclivity for writing bruising stories about unfixable, tortured people, and L.M. Kit Carson, a writer and performer who had, in 1983, penned a Richard Gere-starring remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). The dialogue, lilting and careful, is spare; Shepard and Carson allow physical aspects of the performances to suffuse much of the sadness of the characters. The effect enhances the climactic exchange of monologues, from Stanton and Kinski, when they have their first real conversation in a long time, to resound in their melancholia and urgency.
In his direction, Wenders invokes the most downcast of American Westerns. Comparisons to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) have critically abounded. That film, too, circled around a man obsessed with righting a wrong from his past, only to leave everyone behind when everything had seemingly fallen back into place at the movie’s end.
But it is neither Wenders’ provocative stylistic recapitulation of U.S.-bred cinematic iconography nor the eerie way he submerges us in this world of hurt that transfixed me most. (I felt thoroughly, and comparatively, blue while watching Wings of Desire, his masterpiece from 1987.) Because Wenders is an outsider himself — a European making a movie about malcontented Americans — it is as if he understands the same sort of detachment as experienced by the people populating his film.
The acting is preternatural. Stanton, that ubiquitous, gaunt, sunken-eyed character actor, looks the way you might imagine Travis' inners appearing if to be personified. Kinski, then 22, is as ethereal as she is china-doll fragile. Hunter Carson — shrewd — provides one of the most understated and nuanced performances from a child. Stockwell and Clément are excellent as people who feel selfish for (realistically) worrying that everything they’ve come to appreciate about their lives could be pulled out from under them at any moment.
This is a languid, phantasmagoric, quietly devastating film. It is not altogether seamless, though. Some flashes in the narrative are slapdash, or, at least, noticeably discrete. There is something unsavory about Travis’ sloppy, heartless decision to take Hunter with him to find Jane without obtaining Anne and Walt’s approval. And the climactic heart to heart between Jane and Travis, though powerful, suffers, in part, due to its too-specific revelations. They are too detailed, too pragmatically delivered, to fittingly supplement the movie’s dependence on abstract, unspeakable sorrow. But Paris, Texas is so superlatively resonant — a shattering portrait of one’s lust for life lost — that its failures do little to undercut its emotional richness. A
ravis (Harry Dean Stanton) has been missing for four years. He turns up one day in West Texas, donning a dusty red hat and tattered clothes. After collapsing at a gas station, he is tended to by a German doctor called Ulmer (Bernhard Wicki). The latter, who finds an unmarked phone number scratched out on a piece of paper stuffed in his patient’s pocket, is able to track down his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell). After Walt picks up the