With the 2022 Cannes Film Festival coming to a close in the next few days, I’ve been watching some of the films that previously won the prestigious Palme d’Or. They’re an interesting group of films. Some of them have been forgotten. Some of them are still regarded as classics. Some of them definitely deserve to be seen by a wider audience. Take for the instance that winner of the 1984 Palme d’Or winner, Paris, Texas. This is a film that is well-regarded by cineastes but it definitely deserves to be seen by more people.
Though released in 1984, Paris, Texas opens with an image that will resonate for many viewers today. A dazed man stumbles through the desert while wearing a red baseball cap. Though the cap may not read “Make America Great Again,” the sight of it immediately identifies the owner as being a resident of what is often dismissively referred to as being flyover country, the long stretch of land that sits between the two coasts. Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) is lost, both figuratively and literally. After he stumbles into a bar and collapses, he’s taken to a doctor (played by German film director Bernhard Wicki) who discovers that Travis has a phone number on him. When the doctor calls the number, he speaks to Travis’s brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell). Walt has not seen Travis for three years and the viewer gets the feeling that Walt spent those years assuming that Travis was dead. Walt agrees to travel to West Texas to retrieve his brother and take him back to Los Angeles.
When Walt retrieves his brother, he’s annoyed that Travis refuses to explain where he’s been for the past three years. In fact, for the first fourth of the film, Travis doesn’t say anything. He just stares into space. Finally, when he does speak, it’s to tell Walt that he wants to go to Paris. Walt tells him that going to Paris might have to wait. Travis elaborates that he wants to go to Paris, Texas. He owns an empty parking lot in Paris, Texas.
It takes a while to learn much about Travis’s past. Like many of Wim Wenders’s films, Paris, Texas moves at its own deliberate pace and it features characters who tend to talk around their concerns instead of facing them head-on. What we do eventually learn is that Travis has a son named Hunter (Hunter Black). Travis’s wife, Jane, (played by Natassja Kinski) disappeared first. Travis disappeared afterwards, leaving Walt and his wife (Aurore Clement) to raise his son. At first, when Travis arrives in Los Angeles, he struggles to reconnect with Hunter but eventually, he does. He tries to be a father but, again, he sometimes struggles because, while Travis has a good heart, he’s also out-of-step with the world.
As for Jane, we eventually learn that she’s in Houston. She’s working in a tacky sex club, one where the customers and the strippers are separated by a one-way mirror. The customer can see and talk to the stripper but the stripper can’t see the customers. It’s all about manufactured intimacy. The customer can delude themselves into thinking that the woman is stripping just for him while the woman doesn’t have to see the man who is watching her. There are no emotions to deal with, just the illusion of a connection.
Even as Travis begins to make a life for himself in Los Angeles, he finds himself tempted to return to Houston to search for his wife….
As I said, Paris, Texas is a deliberately paced film. With a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes, it feels like it’s actually three films linked together. We start with Travis and Walt traveling back to Los Angeles. The second film deals with Travis’s attempts to bond with his son. And the third and most powerful film is about what happens when Travis finally finds Jane. It all comes together to form a deceptively low-key character study of a group of lost souls, all of whom are dealing with the mistakes of the past and hoping for a better future. The film’s most memorable moment comes when Travis delivers a long and heartfelt monologue about his marriage to Jane. Beautifully written by Sam Shephard (who co-wrote the script with L.M. Kit Carson) and wonderfully acted by Harry Dean Stanton, it’s a monologue about regret, guilt, forgiveness, and ultimately being cursed to wander.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Paris, Texas is an undeniably joyful film. In a rare leading role, Harry Dean Stanton plays Travis as someone who is full of regrets but who, at the same time, retains a spark of hope and optimism. Life has beaten him down but he has yet to surrender. Once he reaches Los Angeles and Travis starts to fully come out of his fugue state, there’s a playful energy to Stanton’s performance. The scene where he dresses up as what he thinks a dad should look like is a highlight. For Travis, being a responsible adult starts with putting on a suit and walking his son home from school. Stanton’s excellent performance is matched by good work from Dean Stockwell and, especially, Natassja Kinski.
Visually, the film is all about capturing the beauty and the peculiarity of the landscape of the American southwest. Like many European directors, Wim Wenders seems to be a bit in love with the combination of rugged mountains and commercialized society that one finds while driving through the west. In the scenes in which Stanton wanders through West Texas, the landscape almost seems like it might consume him and, later, in Los Angeles and Houston, the garishness of the city threatens to do the same. Wherever he is, Travis is slightly out-of-place and the viewer can understand why Travis is compelled to keep wandering. At times, it seems like Travis will never fit in anywhere but the fact that he never gives up hope is comforting. In many ways, Travis’s own journey mirrors Stanton’s career in Hollywood. He had the talent of a leading man but the eccentric countenance of a great character actor. He may have never been quite fit in with mainstream Hollywood but he never stopped acting.
The film itself never visits Paris, Texas. Travis just talks about the fact that he owns an empty lot in the town and that he would like to see it. Still, I like to think Travis eventually reached Paris and I like to think that he did something wonderful with that lot.