Midnight in Paris

Having seen 21 of the 41 films that Woody Allen has directed, I think it’s safe to say I’m a pretty big fan of his work. He has always managed to make me laugh, think and ruminate on some of the big issues in life. On top of that, watching his films brings out the wannabe intellectual in me, as each obscure reference to a philosopher, writer or jazz musician that he throws in inflates my ego when I understand what he’s talking about. It seems though that, much like the lower and middle classes since the recession, Woody has fallen on hard times of late. Not financially, but creatively. He’s had his fair share of dire films in the last decade yet continues to mechanically churn them out for some reason – money? Boredom? Who knows. Rarely have his films hit the mark with either critics or audiences since the early 90’s. But his latest film Midnight In Paris seems to be gripping both by the wrist and not letting go. Having mostly seen Woody’s earlier films (I’ve seen every film he released in the 70’s and 80’s bar two) the prospect of actually seeing a new one in the cinema excited me greatly.  And actually watching it excited me even more.

WARNING – SPOILER ALERT

Midnight In Paris focuses on a young engaged couple (Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams) spending a holiday in Paris with the parents of the bride-to-be. Wilson plays a nostalgic Hollywood screenwriter called Gil, who is in love with the idea of living as an expatriate in Paris to focus on a new novel. He idolizes the Lost Generation and finds the historic city a glorious source of inspiration. His fiancée and her parents, however, have no interest in the French or their culture. One night, while feeling frustrated and wanting to get away from his fiancée’s irritating “pseudo-intellectual” friend, (played wonderfully by Michael Sheen) he takes a drunken walk around the backstreets of Paris. When the clock strikes midnight, a car pulls up and the occupants invite him in to join in their festivities. The car arrives at a lucrative party and Wilson’s character, upon meeting the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter, realizes he has been transported back to the 1920’s of his fantasy. After meeting a host of other 1920’s expatriate celebrities, such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, he falls in love with Adriana, a fictitious mistress of Pablo Picasso. Torn between the real life of the 2010’s and the alternate reality of the 1920’s (to which he can return any night by waiting at the same spot in Paris after midnight) he faces a tough choice: should he indulge his fantasy, or should he recognize the danger of living in the past?

Woody Allen has created something quite magical in the scenes in the past. For anybody (like Gil, and admittedly myself) who has dreamt of living in those days, they are represented on the screen with stunning authenticity. It was supremely enjoyable to sit in the cinema and watch some of my favourite literary characters come to life, to partake in the 20’s Charleston and hop dance crazes and walk along the streets of Paris talking of art and literature. It was simply a wonderful experience. I discovered a renewed appreciation for the city of Paris and I, like Gil, was completely captivated by the elegant and irresistible charms of Adriana; played brilliantly by Marion Cotillard. This leads me along to my next point - the 20’s figures were perfectly cast by Allen, who’s always had a knack for this sort of thing. Almost every actor playing a famous figure was unknown to me, and their resemblance to the real-life counterpart was at times truly frightening; as if I were witnessing the real people themselves on screen. The Fitzgeralds, (F. Scott and Zelda) Picasso, Cole Porter, Man Ray, Henri Matisse were all so stunningly well acted by their actors/lookalikes I temporarily forgot I was in a cinema. I was alongside Gil, talking to these people with the same sense of awe and wonder as he had. But the actors and actresses who I did recognize played their parts wonderfully also. Kathy Bates was a flawless Gertrude Stein, and Adrien Brody was hilarious in his exaggerated caricature of Salvador Dali. 

Not only have the simple details been captured, such as the costumes and the music, but the very essence of the “Lost Generation” has been captured; their post-war frustration and sense of emptiness, lack of their own cultural identity and ignorance towards their own faults. In this way, Allen has offered a necessary counter to the idea of nostalgia, something addressed in the film as “Golden Age Syndrome,” of the flawed belief that living in a past era would bring more satisfaction in life. As beautiful as the scenes in the 1920’s are, we must be reminded that such tantalizing fantasies of living in that era are not only ridiculous, but also dangerous. This notion is gently rebuffed at the end, causing Gil to return to 2010 and leave Adriana and his literary idols behind him.

In terms of the film itself, it succeeds resoundingly as a romantic drama and one with its elements of sorrow. Obviously Woody Allen himself is a bit romantic and melancholy, otherwise he wouldn’t have made such a film. The film builds up by offering two completely contrasting and obviously biased views of the two different timescales. In 2010 it’s clear Gil isn’t happy and the world isn’t to his satisfaction. He’s forced to attend dinner with his fiancée’s parents with whom he clashes on their political leanings. He’s dragged along by his fiancée to look at expensive furniture that he has no interest in. His only solace in 2010 are things of the past; such as finding an old Cole Porter record in an antique shop, traversing an art gallery and seeing the beautiful gardens of Versailles. Yet in the 20’s, it’s all discussions with literary giants, midnight strolls with a beautiful woman and drinking parties. Just like Gil, we’re strung along with the notion that the 20’s are obviously better than the present day, and despite the 20’s characters’ obvious dissatisfaction with their own lives, we remain blind to it. It’s not until Adriana proclaims that the Belle Epoque was the greatest era of Parisian culture and is subsequently transported there herself that we begin to realize what’s happening. The past is always romanticized, it’s always more alluring than the present because we have the gift of retrospect. I’m sure Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn’t realize at the time that they would end up being two of the most important English language writers of the 20th century. Similarly, when Adriana finds herself transported back to the Belle Epoque and is talking to the likes of Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec, they proclaim that the Renaissance was the greatest era and wouldn’t consider themselves worthy of the likes of Da Vinci or Michelangelo. The past can never fully satisfy us because we’ll eventually get bored of one era and become fascinated with another, something Gil eventually accepts, but Adriana does not.

It wouldn’t be Woody Allen, though, if he didn’t want to raise a few laughs. As touching as this film is, it’s quite light-hearted and there are many elements of comedy in the film. The character of Ernest Hemingway is as much of a tribute as it is a parody – his spoken words are quite humourously just like his written prose. As I previously mentioned, Adrien Brody portrays Dali with delicious satire, and there are a number of other self-referential points in the film, such as Gil suggesting the plot of Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel to a young Bunuel, leaving the young surrealist confused at the absurdity of it. Michael Sheen’s character is as annoying as he is obnoxious, and you’ll no doubt be left thinking of someone you know who’s just like him.

As much as I have raved about the film, I do have a number of complaints. The characters of Gil’s fiancée and her parents are hopelessly wooden. No harm to Rachel McAdams, but her character is terribly clichéd. Rich, spoiled, with no appreciation for culture and who’s about to marry a man who clearly isn’t suited for her. Her parents are like any other older couple that Woody Allen has cast in a film. It’s clear that his priorities lay with making the 20’s characters sparkling and welcoming, as they all have more warmth and life in them than the 2010 ones. However, I can easily overlook it. I don’t think anyone is going to pretend that Midnight In Paris will be judged in later years to be one of his all-time best films, so I can forgive the one-dimensional characters and concentrate on the wonderful portrait of the 20’s that he has given me.

Is Woody Allen back on form? We’ll have to see. If he can follow Midnight In Paris up with a film containing even a fraction of its magic then I’d have to say yes. However, it’s a light-hearted work, probably not a major statement. I imagine it was more of a personal project or a lifelong ambition of Allen’s to work in an era that really fascinated him. Certainly it’s the most compelling film of his I’ve seen since 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite, although that too was also light-hearted and not a particularly major film in his oeuvre. But Midnight in Paris, despite its shortcomings, is remarkably enjoyable, and while I’m sure it won’t trouble the Oscar committee or go down as one of his classics, it’s as good a film as you’re likely to see from a director whose first film was released 45 years ago.

Words – Adam

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