Woody Allen, Spain, USA, 2011, 94 mins, 1.85:1
Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Carla Bruni, Nina Arianda, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy, Léa Seydoux, Adrien Brody, Gad Elmaleh, David Lowe, Lil Mirkk, Daniel Lundh
French Theatrical Release: 11 May 2011, Mars Distribution
Review by Noel Megahey
It doesn’t take more than a few minutes for Woody Allen to set out the rather simple premise for Midnight in Paris. Opening with a three-minute romanticised sequence of picture-postcard shots of Paris in all its beauty, from the boats on the Seine to the rain on the boulevards, it’s easy to see why an American writer, Gil (Owen Wilson), would be taken with the place, and perhaps hope to find there the inspiration for a novel he is writing. It’s his first novel, having previously made a small fortune writing trashy screenplays for Hollywood movies, but caught up in the practicalities of his forthcoming marriage to Inez (Rachel McAdams), he is struggling to finish it, or even find the time to seek that inspiration.
Not only are the wedding plans proving to be a distraction, but Gil also has to deal with the fact that he and his wife-to-be are tagging along with his future in-laws, as Inez’s father is on a business trip. Caught up in the tedium of their own little group, isolated from the real city outside through the tedium of staying luxury five-star hotels, dining at exclusive restaurants, browsing through expensive boutiques and galleries with Inez’s dull and self-important friends, Gil is shut-off from the realities that he wants to capture in his novel. He wishes he could have been in Paris in the 1920s, when the city was alive and filled with great writers, painters and poets – Hemingway, Picasso, Stein, Dali and TS Elliot. Managing to free himself from engagements one night, Gil wanders through the streets of Paris seeking inspiration and gets lost, but is invited to what appears to be a themed nightclub by a couple in an old-fashioned limousine who introduce themselves as Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.
Successive nights see Gil again slip back in time, bringing him into contact with all those famous left-bank artists of Paris in the 1920s, who give him sage advice on writing and sometimes anachronistic advice on life, while back in the present in the day time, he polishes up rewrites of his developing novel. That much plays out rather predictably from the simple premise, and there are a lot of clichés thrown in about Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Paris of the twenties. With such a setting, Woody also can’t resist playing with a lot of in-jokes, which although are pretty obvious, are no less amusing for it. Getting first-hand art critique on a Picasso painting from Gertrude Stein, Gil is able to upstage his rival Paul (Michael Sheen) and display a kind of insider expert knowledge that they would never have imagined a Hollywood hack writer would possess. Best of all, Gil gives Buñuel the idea for the guests trapped at the party in the Exterminating Angel - “But why don’t they just leave?”, asks the bewildered filmmaker.
There is however something of a contradiction at the heart of Midnight in Paris that makes it intriguing, since it also gets to the heart of what drives the best Woody Allen films and makes them interesting. Allen’s characters often look back on the past, mostly through old movies, as a necessary escapism from the horrors of modern day real-life, but how would they cope when the past becomes the present? Through Hemingway, Gil comes to appreciate the virtues of living dangerously in the moment, approaching challenges with courage and grace under pressure, but that outlook is contrasted to good effect with Gil (who is clearly the younger stand-in for Woody Allen in this film), who is terrified of death and hates the present, seeing it full of horrors, diseases, terrorists and right-wing lunatics. In an added twist however, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), one of the characters Gil meets in 1920s Paris who has been the lover of Picasso, Braque and Modigliani, is unable to see her “present” as being exceptional and dreams of an idealised Belle Epoque Paris, and their relationship forces Gil to reconsider his own position.
If the film’s premise is rather idealised and predictable, not to mention a little bit kitsch in its view of Paris, and the twist is just another variation on his Purple Rose of Cairo idea (where a movie actor in an old film walks off the screen into real-life), it does have a persuasive charm here that comes through the character acting. The weedy whining quality of the traditional Woody Allen figure is given a little more sympathetic charm due to Owen Wilson’s droll laid-back personality. Marion Cotillard is also excellent, although she does have a rather more rounded-out character than most of the other figures in the film. Between the two of them, they carry Midnight in Paris through its more obvious contrivances and weaknesses. Most of the 1920s celebrities are barely-sketched clichés of the real people, but even so, Allen uses the little cameos well, particularly the French actors. The most popular comedian in France, Gad Elmaleh, is cast as a private detective and must have all of 15 seconds screentime in total, but just when you think he has been forgotten, Allen wraps up his character with a hilarious punchline. Léa Seydoux likewise seems underwritten and underused, but she nevertheless brings an unfeigned innocent awkwardness to the film that is charming.
Midnight in Paris is not particularly clever and it’s not the most original of ideas, but it does sum up a particular world-view held by Woody Allen, and consequently, he gives the script and direction a little more care and attention than has been evident in some of his recent films. If it’s not Allen’s funniest film, it does at least have more than a few amusing incidents and lines, but more importantly, there’s a charm and sincerity in the filmmaker’s love for Paris and a belief in the possibility of a better world – even if it’s only through the movies – that is hard to resist.