Directed by Wim Wenders
Paris, Texas is a stunningly beautiful film that, despite mostly dealing with loss, guilt and suffering, ends up feeling incredibly hopeful. It’s very possible that you might not take the ending with any sense of optimism, and the film, on several occasions, seems to offer you multiple ways out of the viewing experience. There are scenes that feel a little confused, though definitely with intention. Whether it’s the music or the main character Travis’ (Harry Dean Stanton) empathy-inspiring gentle tone of voice even as he discusses some truly despicable behavior, the film makes you uncomfortable with the situation but sympathetic to all those involved.
To add to that, the cinematography is gorgeous. I’m a sucker for nice wide open southern plains, particularly in combination with a nice film grain, but the wardrobe, the emphasis on bold color, and the lighting all do wonders to elevate this film. As we meet Travis stumbling through the dry desert, I got a sense of a modern day western, something like the scenes of Llewellyn Moss hunting in No Country For Old Men. But then the story pivots to Los Angeles, and suddenly I’m getting Kramer Vs. Kramer vibes before we reach the third act where suddenly this feels like Blue Velvet (which came out two years later).
This film is separated into three distinct parts (or acts), each of which could have been their own film. Even as the story jumps forward, it all felt beautiful and coherent. The style changes, the location changes, even the characters change in slightly accelerated ways, but I was with it the whole time. I love this movie.
The first act deals with Travis as he wanders the desert with no clear intention. He doesn’t speak for the first 26 minutes, and even when his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell) comes to pick him up, Travis offers no explanation for where he has been the past four years. Walt, it turns out, has unofficially adopted Hunter, Travis’ son. It’s not entirely clear at first if Travis knows his son or if he is even of sound mind.
In the second act, Walt brings Travis home with him and encourages him to bond with his son, despite Walt’s wife Anne’s (Aurore Clement) quiet objections for fear of losing their son. Hunter is apprehensive in regards to Travis, but soon Travis breaks out of his shell, becoming much more animated. Very quickly he is nothing like the zombie-like man who stumbled out of the desert mysteriously.
At the midpoint of the film, Anne tells Travis that they receive checks for Hunter from Travis’ ex-wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who it was easy to think might’ve died years earlier. When Anne tells Travis this, it seems like she might be purposefully misleading him, knowing he will take the bait and ditch town. Travis does, and Anne isn’t lying, but he takes Hunter with him when Hunter excitedly decides he wants to hop along and find his mom.
They track Jane down in Houston, driving a bright red car. Travis follows her to a club where she works as a stripper or an escort of some kind, one who works behind a one-way mirror in which they can’t see the patron, but the patron can see them. Travis asks for Jane, and he doesn’t tell her who he is. Later he comes back and tells her everything, starting with a vague story about a man and a woman who fell in love. It’s the story of them, and it gets more and more specific, filling us in on all the details.
It turns out there was no great mystery behind Travis’ four year hiatus from life. He simply didn’t like what had become of him following the dissolution of his marriage with Jane. He describes to her the story of their marriage and subsequent break up in a remarkably calm voice, even as he describes doing things like tying a bell to her feet so that he’d know if she left in the middle of the night.
This scene is incredibly tender and ultimately sincere, but out of context (and even with context) it is pretty disturbing. Here’s a frame from that scene:
The sinister looking guy? That’s our protagonist.
The music under this scene tells us this is an inspiring moment, but what Travis says sounds like that of a monster. The way Jane crawls up to the window suggests there’s a little Stockholm syndrome in her.
So this scene, if you ignore what is said and focus on how it’s said, feels like a reunion. A guy wins back the woman he loves by admitting his mistakes, just like we’ve seen in any number of romantic comedies. But Travis knows his mistakes are severe, and he’s not trying to win Jane back. He knows he drove her away from their son, and he just wants to bring them together, undoing some of the damage he caused.
In the final scene, Jane shows up at the hotel room where Travis told her to meet their son. They have matching bright blond hair, and it’s only at this moment that it really hit me how unalike Travis and Hunter look. To further emphasize the bond between the boy and his mother, both wear green clothing while smothered in a green environment:
Hunter and Jane blend right into each other and into the scene, like they’re connected and have been missing something ever since she left. They belong together. Color in this scene, then, serves to unite, but at the beginning of the film, Travis’ defining color, red, served to set him apart from the world around him.
His color is red throughout the story, and there is some hope (in the Kramer Vs. Kramer portion of the film) because the color red bonds Travis and his son.
But as Travis tracks down his ex-wife, he is smothered in red and at his most alone:
Even as Jane, when he first sees her, stuck in the booth of uncomfortable erotica, is draped in red as well:
My read on this is that the color red is like an infection. Travis brings it with him, and it infects his son and his wife. On the surface it seems like a great thing that they mend old wounds, but it’s always a risky enterprise because of Travis’ own perspective. He doesn’t consider himself good for his wife or his son, so when they’re covered in red, it’s a reflection of Travis’ role in causing problems in their life.
Jane doesn’t want to be in that booth, and when we first see her, she’s stuck with the color red. The color scheme doesn’t even make sense in that box from the point of view of the people who do her job. For the movie it’s great, but if you’re trying to get a bunch of horny guys’ business, try to come up with something a little more creative. Red drapes and a red phone? It doesn’t make sense, to me, unless it’s symbolic. Jeeze, there’s a 10% chance I was onto something, and then I ruin it by becoming a little too speculative. I know nothing about interior design.
Anyways, red is like the plague. So at the end of the film, as Travis drives away, off to wherever just like he came from wherever, Hunter and Jane are united, wrapped nicely in a new color.
There are a few symbolic connections between Travis’ own journey and the big bang, or space in general. First of all, Hunter talks curiously about the idea of the big bang, and the suddenness of it all. You can look at that as the suddenness of Travis’ ruining his own life and the suddenness of his return into Hunter’s life. When they go to Houston, Hunter brings up that this is where NASA is located. Later we see him with a NASA blue and red sweater.
Now, in my mind, the idea of the “big bang” is a representation of Travis’ life, specifically the collapse of the only life he knew. Before we know what happened, we do know that it was bad enough to send him wandering aimlessly through the desert, like a ghost of Where’s Waldo (I mean, the hat, man, come on). To call him a shell of himself would be an overstatement.
So perhaps I’m stretching for this, but I felt like I noticed several connections between the idea of the universal big bang, and the collapse of Travis’ own universe.
Paris, Texas gets its title from the small town in Texas where Travis tells his brother that he was conceived. He has purchased an empty lot there, and later he explains how his plan was to build a life there with Jane and Hunter. The barren lot is like an unfulfilled promise, and he keeps the photo of that empty lot with him while he performs his own self-assigned penance in the desert. It’s very haunting, the more I think about it. This is a man who crucified himself and wanders nowhere but with a sense of purpose. He is so consumed by guilt, and in the end, despite the good work he did reuniting his wife and son, he heads back out on the open road, his penance not yet finished if it ever will be.