One would think that winning the Palme D’Or and sitting at a perfect 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes would afford a film a certain amount of swagger. The strange thing is that, despite its critical acclaim, Wim Wenders’ riveting tale Paris, Texas still feels woefully underappreciated. Outside of hardcore cinephiles and Criterion collection disciples, the film has largely gone unnoticed by the masses. While its unassuming narrative does not carry the same sexiness of other Palme D’Or winners that the likes of Coppola, Tarantino and Scorsese produced, Wenders’ film is more than worthy to be uttered in the same breath as those titans of film.
Paris, Texas is the type of film that openly paddles along an ocean of emotion, but frequently manages to catch us off guard with its waves.
This unpredictable nature is present from the opening images of Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) aimlessly strolling across the Texas desert landscape. Wearing an aged baseball cap and disheveled clothes, he resembles a ragged cowboy who has been in one too many gunfights. Though it is not clear where he is headed when we are introduced to him, it is obvious that he is nowhere near what he is searching for. It is this haunting sense of distance that lingers throughout Paris, Texas.
Evoking the tropes of the great Westerns of the past, Wenders’s tale unfolds at a methodical pace. Six shooters and tumbleweeds are replaced by raw emotion and uncomfortable silence. Similar to the famed Man with No Name, Travis is a man of few words who never seems comfortable when in the company of others. It is only through Travis’ brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), that the dusty cloud of Travis’ past begins to become a bit more transparent.
It has been four years since Travis disappeared without a trace, leaving his brother to take care of his son – the now seven-year-old Hunter (Hunter Carson). Unsure of what exactly happened between Travis and his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), the latter of whom has not been heard from in a while, Walt feels compelled to help his brother reconnect with his son.
Walt’s dreams of family harmony do not sit well with his wife Anne (Aurore Clément). Loving Hunter as if he was their own son, Anne fears that the re-emergence of Travis will only ignite a desire for Hunter to leave with his natural father. However, Hunter begins to have an impact on Travis as well. Realizing what he has missed out on while being away, Travis decides it is time to make some changes in his life. In order for him to move forward though, he must confront a past that has been plaguing him for years.
In slowly attempting to put the pieces of the Henderson family back together, Wenders exposes just how disconnected their puzzle really is. Blinded by the trauma and regret of the past, they exist as shells of their former selves. Paris, Texas does a masterful job of dissecting the ways in which people not only lose sight of themselves, but also fail to truly see others as well.
This point is exquisitely amplified in the scene where Travis and Jane encounter each other for the first time in four years. Their exchange takes place at a gentlemen’s establishment, where Jane works, with a two-way mirror dividing them. Even though he can see Jane and she cannot see him, Travis finds it difficult to convey the thoughts that have been weighing him down for so long. It is only when he turns his back to Jane in the booth that he begins purge his soul via a powerful story.
It is only when they are both completely in the dark, so to speak, that they begin to fully see each other. The fascinating thing is that we, the viewer, feel as if we are emotionally in the booth with them. Though we follow Travis’ journey from the start, we are often left in the dark about key sections of his life.
Just as Travis has gingerly taken steps to reacquaint himself with Hunter, by walking him home from school while remaining on opposite sides of the street, it becomes apparent that Wenders has gently been closing the distance between Travis and the audience as well. Like Jane our eyes fully open to the complexities of this damaged wandering soul.
Paris, Texas is one of those rare works that gives an honest portrayal of a family whose emotional wounds run deep. Every dramatic beat Wim Wenders employs feels pure and necessary. We are not only left to contemplate what will happen to the Henderson clan next, but we also cannot help but reflect on the various disconnects in our own lives. Are we walking within our own fog of regret? Anchored by its rich and layered emotions, Paris, Texas is truly a film like no other.