After being found adrift in the desert, Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) is reunited with the son (Hunter Carson) he abandoned four years earlier.
Almost 40 years since its Palme d’Or victory, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas remains unique and unfathomable. It follows the great American road movies (Easy Rider, Scarecrow) with their haunted meditations on alienation, except with a European director bringing an outsider’s take on American culture (see also Paul Verhoeven).
This askance perspective shapes the 1984 drama, its anonymous exteriors and eccentric interiors. It starts in as wide an expanse as possible (the Texas desert) and spends the next 2.5 hours zooming in, ending where the sun don’t shine (an underground peepshow). As it zooms the story and characters come slowly into focus. When we meet Travis he is mute; by the end his memory is a monologue.
Wenders’ direction is full of perfect observations and unusual camera placements. Whether outside their kitchens and cars looking in, or gazing into rear-view and two-way mirrors, his camera is a window (wimdow?) into these people’s inner lives. DOP Robby Müller captures every frame as a landscape painting; Ry Cooder’s slide guitar lines hang suspended in mid-air like so many feelings left unsaid.
Stanton is a quiet revelation as the troubled Travis (not the one from Taxi Driver), his sunken cheeks wells of guilt, sacrifice and forgiveness. Nastassja Kinski is instantly iconic in so few scenes and a fuzzy pink sweater, while the young Carson gives the kind of elevated child performance usually reserved for robot-based sci-fi (T2, A.I.).
The script by Sam Shepard and L. M. Kit Carson moves easily from heartwarming and funny (“How can you have two fathers?” “Just lucky I guess.”) to achingly sad, finding time en route to deconstruct the nuclear family and the middle class. When Carmelita the maid (Socorro Valdez) asks Travis if he wants to dress rich or poor and he replies, “In-between,” she checks his privilege: “There is no in-between.”
It is one of many aspects that renders Paris, Texas relevant where many of its contemporaries have dated, alongside its outlook on mental illness, nontraditional families and domestic abuse. This makes the movie feel alive, its characters still fuzzy in the rear-view mirror, its enigmatic beauty only deepened by time.