Film Reviews

Midnight in Paris Woody Allen

Rating - 7/10

In a loving way, watching Woody Allen’s latest feature Midnight in Paris in 2011 is evocative of his black-and-white masterpiece Manhattan (1979).  Pardon the absence of Allen’s narration in the former, the films’ nearly identical opening montages are animated by the beautifully widescreen images of the respective locales.  As Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” scored shots of Manhattan, New Orleans native Sidney Bechet's “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère” adorns Allen’s latest promenade through the city of love.  In this three-minute sequence perfectly synchronized with song, Allen rediscovers the same sort of fondness for milieu and personal definition of place as he once did for his home.  The Manhattan connection extends to the iconic promotional shots for the films, which portend the foci from the relationship ensemble to the individual: Isaac and Mary await the dawn and lounge on a bench near the Queensborough Bridge in Manhattan, and Midnight in Paris frames his protagonist strolling along the Seine as Van Gogh’s Starry Night morphs the landscape into watercolor.  As if writing a role for himself, the writer-director channels love for Paris through surrogate voice and Pasadena screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson – not the most believable Californian with his Southern accent), who is visiting with his girlfriend Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her well-to-do conservative parents.  Gil’s nostalgic pining for the past immediately intrudes upon the brief opening credits, and the subject of “Golden Age Thinking” is subsequently introduced as the thematic point for the film.  Much like Allen, Gil openly romanticizes the past and affinity for early twentieth century writers (Hemingway) and music (Cole Porter).  As the signature emotionally conflicted, insightful, self-deprecating intellectual, he transplants elements of a bygone era into his own unique modern artistic sensibility.  In Midnight in Paris, Allen even extends this idea a step further in a sort of Purple Rose of Cairo-fashion, relocating Gil via low fantasy/magical realism/historical fiction into the warm inviting nights of 1920s, the decade to which he most prominently identifies.

Adopting further elements from 1985’s charming Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen circumvents rational explanations for his brand of pervading fantasy; he seeks to entertain through the portrait of a man, his city, and his ideals.  Midnight in Paris achieves a relative balance in its presence of living historical figures by offering neither skeletal, overdeveloped, nor erroneous renderings; while the film falters somewhat from the revolving door of faces, they aren’t permitted to usurp Gil’s introspection.  Among others, making appearances are Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (a spontaneous Alison Pill and mannerly Tom Hiddleston), Ernest Hemingway (a sportive Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (a subdued Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (a cryptic Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Salvador Dali (a snide-looking Adrien Brody), who are each played with varying degrees of success, but the importance is derived not from their mere on-screen time but Gil’s collective interactions with them.  Whether lightly humorous or meditative, each facilitates his epiphany.  This is well-complemented by Gil’s interactions in the present with anyone from Inez’s peers to Parisians and the perceptions of success, career, romantic competitiveness – this longing for a past as the symbol of creative inspiration.  Escorted to this magical realm of Paris by vintage Peugeot at the stroke of midnight, Gil happens upon a lovely and enigmatic young model/fashion student from Bordeaux, Adrianna (Marion Cotillard), at Gertrude Stein’s abode.  She is revealed to be Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway’s mistress (as Allen would seem to imply that her beauty cannot be contained to one man), who is intrigued by the introductory expounding of Gil’s novel about the owner of an antique shop.  “What was prosaic and even vulgar to one generation had been transmuted by the mere passing of years to a status once magical and also camp…,”  Stein reads aloud to attentive ears.  “I love it.  I’m already hooked,” Adrianna responds.  “The past has always had a great charisma for me.”  Drawn to the same romanticization he himself possesses, Gil is enraptured by her nostalgic glamor.  Although ironically flawed, Gil projects his hopeful, idealized love of Paris onto Adrianna, and she becomes the sort of mystical personification of the city.  However, as Gil soon realizes, his love for a city of yore and woman that would surely be unfaithful to him within it is an “insurmountable problem,” as may be his superficial love for his beautiful but equally distracted belle, Inez.  With this, Allen directs the familiar artist’s dilemma toward a practical yet unexpected denouement.

Nagging questions pursue – cinematic redundancy (utilizing a writer who closely uses biographical elements for their fiction like Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters and Harry in Deconstructing Harry), Gil’s inability to speak French despite his love for Paris, invisible modern technology, and the indirect dead-end jabs at modern fascism, ahem, conservatism – but they are relegated in light of the intelligible layering of commentaries of the creative mind.  In respect to Allen’s oeuvre, the revelation that nostalgia is inherently illusory is thematically refreshing, as if the director himself has turned a corner.  It is diametrically opposed to his expected contemplations in many of his former forty films, which regard high art of mid-twentieth century above anything of the present.  Harking back to the Manhattan connection, Leonard Quart’s essay, “Woody Allen’s New York,” discusses the choice black-and-white cinematography of that film, which “projects the city’s continuity with, from his perspective, its more elegant past.”  By contrast, Midnight in Paris is filmed in color, because the triumphant view is inverted, and Gil as well as Allen embrace the present.  Simon Gallagher of Film School Rejects writes, “artists and ‘real people’ are perpetually looking backwards enviously to what they see as a supposedly better time,” using this escapism to stagnate the identity crises and clandestine cultural dilemmas throughout history.  Midnight in Paris may also be seen as a continuing critique of the artistic vapidity that results from inclusion or ascension into high society; for the informed artist, material wealth means nothing in the absence of self-fulfillment.  This is doubled by the inherent condemnation toward Inez’s sporadically appearing, “pedantic,” former love-interest, Paul.  The resulting and typically Allenesque message concerns forms of self-criticism that elevate one above the lifeless savant.  Finally, The Man From Porlock lobs a complaint about the director’s dismissing of “a potential comic goldmine by not having Inez go back with Gil and interact with his idols.”  While it would enhance her humanity, this trick would automatically force the core of the story to make a trite detour.  Because Gil is acquainted with the essence of his idols through their work, the story maintains its individualistic integrity.  Allen opts for more erudite humor involving Gil’s interactions with historical figures through his seemingly prophetic knowledge of modern day (a scene with Luis Buñuel as possibly the best example).  After all, it’s his story.  But it’s Woody Allen that crafts it as one that his audience, no matter how acquainted with his prior work, can appreciate and recognize as his own but hopefully not quite romanticize.