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Non-Review Review: Midnight in Paris

A special thanks to the IFI for sneaking us into an advance screening. If you’re interested, they’re hosting a season of actors-turned-directors through October, with Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo among those screening.

“You inhabit two worlds. So far, I see nothing strange.”

“Of course, you’re a Surrealist.”

– Man Ray takes Gil’s time-traveling confession quite well

Woody Allen has, to a greater or lesser extent, been heavily influenced by Europe in the past few years. Ignoring Whatever Works, he’s clearly been inspired by the great European cities. Vicky Christina Barcelona is perhaps the most obvious, if only because it was perhaps the most critically and commercially successful, but London has also produced works as diverse as Match Point and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. Still, if you’re going to work with the major European cities, it seems pointless to avoid Paris, the city of lights and lovers, home to generations of artists for decades upon decades, it has earned a reputation as one of the most powerful and inspiring locations on the face of the planet. Allen does his subject proud, producing what is certainly his best film since his trip to Barcelona, and one I’d rank considerably higher in my own estimation. It seems that even the cynical Woody Allen can become something of a romantic in Paris.

The importance of being Ernest...

There are a host of reasons that Midnight in Paris comes together remarkably well. I think that it’s a film with a lot of mass appeal. Ironically for a movie about a time-traveling American writer who visits quite a bit of the city’s rich cultural history, it’s one of the director’s less idiosyncratic works, and arguably among his most conventional. It’s very clearly structured around a central character and his journey, rather than assembling a wide range of themes and ideas that never really resolved themselves. Midnight in Paris feels far more substantial than a lot of the director’s work, but that’s only one facet of the movie’s appeal.

Like the city it adopts as a setting, it’s whimsical and romantic. It never takes itself too seriously, and seems to be produced with genuine passion and affection. After all, it’s a movie about an American who takes a trip to Paris shortly before he gets married, only to fall in love with a French woman from the 1920s, who he meets at midnight when a strange car takes him back in time to meet any number of iconic and recognisable literary giants from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway. It’s very silly, but it’s also rather fanciful. The very idea seems to firmly reject quite a lot of the cynicism we’ve seen Allen vent in relatively recent times. It feels like the director’s rough edges are smoothing, ever so slightly.

Great Scott!

The central point of the film is that nostalgic romanticism for the past is a wasted effort, nothing but an excuse to give up on the present and the future. “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present,” the pretentious Paul observes, “the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” It’s a central theme that you imagine could be attacked with considerable vigour, but the film instead carefully and affectionately toys with it. There’s nothing vicious in the way that Allen addresses the idea, which I think helps the movie feel smart without seeming bitter or detached.

One of the more frustrating attributes of Allen’s recent work – at least for me – is the fact that a lot of it seems rather aggressive and cynical to the point where there’s no joy in anything. There’s a lot of joy in Midnight in Paris, which is why I think it works so well. Allen’s protagonist, Gil wants to live in Paris ninety years ago, and he’s given the chance to mix with his icons and with some of the most influential figures who ever lived, brought to life with great zeal by a superb supporting cast. One might expect the movie to bitterly subvert Gil’s expectations, revealing the artists to be flawed or arrogant or exclusive, but they all seem like incredibly nice people. Instead, Gil muct reach his own decision about how and when he wants to live.

The legend of Zelda...

Even Gil himself seems like a nice enough sort of guy. Allen’s tendency to write lead roles modelled around his own neurotic personality has become something of a trademark, but he’s really struggled to find actors than can channel those sorts of roles well. Part of the problem is that Allen isn’t afraid to tarnish his leads, or to make them very flawed individuals, perhaps lacking what Hemingway would call “insurmountable courage.” Actors like Josh Brolin and Kenneth Branagh have brought these flaws to the fore, but I’ve noticed that quite a few of Allen’s stand-ins struggle to see past these flaws, to make the characters seem like more than just a collection of failures in judgment.

Owen Wilson is the movie’s ace in the hole. I’d make the argument that he is the best stand-in that Allen has ever found, because Wilson has that wonderful duality about him that Allen used to bring to the screen. Wilson tends to play characters that seem like they could be horrible people (be they arrogant, self-centred, reckless), but who were compelling and interesting enough to account for these flaws – he might have been annoying from time to time, but Wilson’s “surfer dude” persona smooths the edges quite a bit. He has that quality that so many stand-ins lack, the sense that he’s an interesting guy with a few flaws, rather than simply a flawed human being.

A-paul-ing behaviour...

I think the movie works because we actually come to care for Gil a bit, despite the fact that he’s seriously contemplating having an affair. In one rather wonderful sequence, Gil stoops to stealing his fiancée’s pearl earrings to give to his crush – which leads to some hilarious consequences when she arrives home earlier than expected. It’s an act that really makes the character seem like a completely shallow douche, one who really deserves any massive karmic payback coming his way – but we never hate him for it. Wilson still manages to make us sympathise with Gil, and convinces us that there’s a romantic core beneath these cynical and self-serving acts.

In fact, the only real cynicism that Allen demonstrates seemed clearly aimed at Gil’s fellow American tourists – his fiancée, her old friend and his wife, Gil’s parents-in-law. These are people who having varying degrees of interest in Paris, but none of whom are willing to engage with it. His father-in-law is quick to blame “exotic” French cuisine (“beef bourguignon”) for nearly giving him a heart attack, while Paul is quick to assert that his academic knowledge of French cultural history is superior to anybody else’s (even the French themselves). I know it’s a bit of a cliché about American tourists, but it doesn’t feel too obvious or forced. Plus, it leads to a brilliant sequence where Paul’s wife spends a trip to Versailles taking photographs of her husband, rather than of the beautiful scenery.

Time for the Dalí update...

The supporting cast is great. It’s not necessarily “star-studded”, although there are any number of familiar faces. Instead, Allen seems to have allocated the supporting roles to the actors best suited. I’m really quite fond of the entire ensemble of classical literary and artistic figures, but Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston are great as the Fitzgeralds and Adrian Brody steals a scene as Dalí. Never has an actor uttered the line “I see rhinoceros!” with such conviction. Corey Stoll is superb as Ernest Hemingway.

I loved Midnight in Paris, if only as a rather surreal encapsulation of the romance of Paris. I’ve been to the city quite a few times over the years, and I harbour the same sort of affection for it that Gil does. I’ve been all over Europe, and I adore quite a few of the cities, but nothing really compares to Paris. So, maybe my own romanticism is showing, but I think it’s certainly among Allen’s strongest work. The director has softened a bit, and let his romantic side out, which is worth admission price alone. I think I literally spent the entire movie beaming from ear-to-ear. Well, that’s not entirely true. I laughed quite a bit, too.

13 Responses

  1. Absolutely loved this movie which will end up in my top 10 this year (at least expect it too). Great review!

    • Really liked it. Have you started mentally compiling your annual top ten as well?

      • Yes I have, although I’m not sure if I already have ten yet….but there are still some movies I’m looking forward to

      • Yep, never close-minded! I reckon there might be one or two competing for a spot. At the risk of jynxing it, I think it’s been a great year for movies, large and small.

  2. I missed this when it first came around as I’m not much into Woody Allen nowadays. I think he lost me shortly after Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona. I was told I had to see this by someone who absolutely hated it. Now, with your review, I think I really do have to see it! And then decide which side of the fence I fall onto.

    • I actually really liked Match Point and Vicky Cristini Barcelona, but it was the stuff between then and now that put me off. Things like Whatever Works or You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

  3. It was a fairly light movie by Woody Allen standards, but who am I to complain about Lost Generation fanfic?

    My thoughts are here if you’re interested:

    • I quite liked the lightness, to be honest. I’m going to be controversial and argue that, with the exception of Match Point, Allen is best being “light” (and I’d argue Annie Hall and Manhattan fall into that). It’s when he tries to be more contemplative or pensive that he tends to lose me – I didn’t like Whatever Works or You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger.

  4. You know, it IS a “light” film but it’s deceptively light in the sense that while it can be taken and enjoyed at face value as a romantic, comic little ode to Paris, it’s also replete with rich thematic stuff about nostalgia and the essence of criticism and artistic appreciation. Speaking strictly to nostalgia, it both encourages a healthy amount of nostalgia for times gone by and also underscores the pointlessness of nostalgic yearnings– there isn’t a “golden age”, and everything looks better when you’re glancing at it over your shoulder in retrospect. Adriana’s nostalgic for the Belle Epoque, while Degas, Gaugin, and Toulouse-Lautrec all feel nostalgia for the Renaissance. It never ends; one can only assume that Gil and Adriana would hear similar stories if they went back even farther. There’s a sense that Allen’s pointing out the fruitlessness of yearning for a bygone time, that such endeavors are exercises in futility.

    My favorite element of the film lies in the dichotomy between Gil and Paul. Paul, the intellectual, possesses an abundance of knowledge about the various eras discussed as Allen’s group of modern day characters tour various museums in Paris, but his insights aren’t really his– learned he may be he still is limited by his adherence to the sources he has read. He’s a scholar who totally lacks any real passion for the works he rambles on about. Contrasted with Gil, he’s “smarter”, but not necessarily a better guide through the art world. Gil has an advantage over Paul, and that’s his raw, unfettered love for the arts, which quite literally transports him to another world and lets him experience them in a way that Paul simply can’t. (If we’re to take the time traveling plot device as something less literal and maybe more subtextual.)

    Suffice it to say, I loved Midnight in Paris. It’s easily one of the best movies I’ve seen all year long and the best thing Allen’s done in a decade, and I do not think that that’s hyperbolic. Midnight‘s incredibly well-made, impeccably acted, and filled with energy and passion for its subjects; it made me ache for Europe as soon as the opening credits started to roll. Loved it.

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