(Dir. Woody Allen, United States, 2011)
If there’s one primary complaint leveled against the commendably prolific filmmaker Woody Allen’s twenty-first century output thus far, it’s that these films are mostly flimsy and feather-light in comparison to his early, lauded heavyweights. Classics such as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors found the artist at his inarguable best: perfectly balancing cynical humor with considerable philosophical and moral depth usually against the backdrop of a city with a personality of its own. He’s had his fans after embarking on what feels like an extended tour of Europe’s iconic cities, but none has even so much as satisfied those beholden to his golden period from the late ‘70s into the ‘80s.
Of this late-career fascination with European cities of old, his charming Midnight in Paris is likely the best of the bunch. Forgoing the shocking cynicism devoid of humor in Match Point and the irritating whimsicality of Vicky Cristina Barcelona – probably his two most lauded films in the current Eurotrip up to this point – Midnight finds Allen engaging in similarly lighter fare, but the sentimentality inherent in its nostalgia-soaked construct is rarely sappy, offset by genuine humor unseen in Allen’s recent work as well as a winsome fantastical premise that recalls his greatest forays into fantasy Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Too, Midnight is best understood – and probably most enjoyed – as the late-career self-reflection that it is. Anyone could have toyed with the intentionally unexplained time traveling contained within, but viewed as yet another exposé on the troubled psyche of its creator, the film packs an even harder emotional punch.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a discontent Hollywood screenwriter trying his hand at writing a novel. He and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) tag along with her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) on a business trip to Paris. Here Gil romanticizes about this great French city. He finds his inspiration in the rain, on the cobbled streets, in view of historic monuments, and along the Seine. He could live here, he decides, and yet the Paris he envisions as the ultimate inspiration is the Paris of the 1920s – teeming with modernist artistic creativity. His literary and musical idols lived and worked during this time, and all converged upon this great cultural capital of the world creating what are now considered twentieth century masterworks of art. Inez shares none of these sentiments regarding the city and derides his dreams as pure, nostalgic fantasy – and a considerable roadblock to the future of his professional success.
Allen provides Gil a vehicle (literally) for his backward-leaning romanticizing as an old-timey car picks him up one night at precisely midnight and transports him to the past. Gil is treated to a dazzling parade of Lost Generation artists and celebrities at the peak of their careers. He encounters Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and many, many others in typically humorous and clever Allen fashion. (It is Gil who gives Buñuel the idea for The Exterminating Angel, Stein and Hemingway offer opinions on his work, one of Picasso’s real-life paintings is actually of a forgotten mistress of his.) And yet, amidst each of these icons, Gil is most smitten by the lovely Adriana (a rapturous Marion Cotillard) – Picasso’s fictitious mistress.
And so his holiday in Paris goes on like this – by day, writing and mostly avoiding his fiancée and her dubious admiration for a former schoolmate Paul (Michael Sheen) to whom she’s undoubtedly attracted, and by night, stepping back in time to the era for which he most longs to have lived. His interactions with these artists and thinkers give new meaning to the inspiration in his work, and he quickly finds himself rewriting his novel with this wondrous new experience in mind.
The setup is delightful and Allen’s execution, near perfect – with the help of DP Darius Khondji, he paints Paris in its various stages of its lengthy history with an eye-catching beauty. The opening montage of still shots of city life – most reminiscent of the much grander prologue to Manhattan – is a tribute in its own right, and one could easily see Paris as Allen’s favorite stop on this Eurotrip so far. Paris is well-suited for Allen. It’s historically been an international hub of artistic creativity to rival his beloved New York City on the other side of the Atlantic. But, it’s also clear that Allen is merely a tourist here. He shoots Paris as romantics and audiences alike have always envisioned it to be, but anyone who’s been there or lived in lesser shown neighborhoods can attest to the much busier streets and less affluent qualities of city life that are on display here. And yet, this attitude toward Paris is entirely fitting for Midnight in Paris as the film plays more like homage than dissection of the city. Furthermore, it explicitly details the manner in which romantics like Gil do indeed transpose their own perceptions on the city itself.
Ultimately, Allen reveals the flaw in Gil’s (and by proxy, his own) fantasizing of the past. When Adriana takes him to her own golden age – Paris’ Belle Époque at the turn of the last century – Gil understands that this discontent with the present (that Adriana describes as “dull”) will inevitably surface no matter what era he lives in. In what may very well be an admission of his own pining for the glory of yesteryears, Allen suggests that Gil may be missing out on living in the present by constantly looking back. Somewhat surprisingly, Midnight in Paris ends on an atypically positive note for the director. Gil has, like most of Allen’s conflicted protagonists, reached the limits of his tainted view of the world, but he offers him a glimmer of hope nonetheless. Gil may not be able to live as one of the writers of the glorious ‘20s, but he can be comforted in knowing there are others like him in today’s Paris who share in his love for the old.