Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)


Owen Wilson (Gil), Rachel McAdams (Inez), Michael Seen (Paul), Carla Bruni (Guide), Kathy Bates (Gertrude Stein), Marion Cotillard (Adriana), Adrien Brody (Salvador Dali). Screenplay by Woody Allen. Directed by Woody Allen. Rating: 12. Running time: 94 minutes.

Ever noticed how since Manhattan, Woody Allen seems to feel obliged to begin his films with dull scene setters, showing off the city he’s filming in and thereby not really showing off his talent at all? Any one, after all, can point their camera at the Eiffel Tower or Louvre and make viewers smile at Parisian architecture, but it’s hardly innovative filmmaking.

Fortunately, and to my delight, the critical consensus has turned out to be spot on. Despite the worryingly familiar opening, what follows is not the Allen of recent years in any respect. Midnight in Paris comes to us six months after the God-awful career-low of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, and the contrast in creativity couldn’t be any crazier. This is lovely, charming, featherlight cinema, where most of Mr. Allen’s recent efforts have only managed to be the latter. It’s easily his best film of the past decade, thus showing that, for whatever reason, an apparently stale process in which he churned out a film a year can still pay out in silver dollars, and eventually reward the patient.

The film is a return to the touch of magic and fantasy we got in Sleeper and Zelig. Owen Wilson plays a struggling writer called Gil, who seeks inspiration for his work by strolling the streets of Paris. He’s married to an unimaginative but pretty American girl with Republican parents disapproving of his artsy-fartsy inclinations, and the early jokes center around this unfortunate setup, and the exchanges with the couple’s intellectually snobbish friend who can talk about art better than Gil can.

If it sounds familiar that’s because it is. It’s basically an extension of that Annie Hall scene where Woody goes crazy listening to the Prof slagging off Bergman in the queue at the cinema, and the film at this point seems to be a repeat of the Vicky Cristina theme of Americans not ‘getting’ the European life. The difference is only that Owen Wilson can play the Woody Allen neurotic character better than anyone since Woody himself. Even the whiney voice is spot on, never mind the mannerisms, and the result is some awkward chitchat as amusing as anything Allen filmed in the 80s.

This recognition of the Allen-Owen similarity creates a nice double irony for anyone familiar with the filmmaker. First, there’s the confusing and continuing focus on writing as the pure art form, making one wonder why Woody continues to make films if he really believes this. Second, there’s the sense that he really dislikes and is intent on mocking intellectuals, despite the public perception that Allen is one himself. He insists in interviews that he is not, and perhaps we should believe this from the man who made Hannah and her Sisters – a film about solving one’s existential crisis upon realising God doesn’t exist by watching Groucho Marx, rather than reading Jean-Paul Sartre. But there’s still the sense that, as we laugh at Michael Sheen’s Professor talk so pretentiously, it’s only going to be a minute until Gil himself starts idolising some legendary literary figure.

The irony is cemented when the magic begins, and suddenly Gil finds himself back in 1920 – his Golden Age Utopia – sharing drinks with Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, getting Gertrude Stein to give feedback on his novel and flirting with Picasso’s latest mistress. It would be very easy to overdo the ‘my God, I can’t believe this is happening’ line here, but fortunately the amount it is used feels just right. Aside from the delights that just naturally attach themselves to observing the details of this situation, there’s a handful of ingenius gags we should really see coming sooner. Gil, like the Allen of old, frets constantly about death, so meeting the stoical Hemingway over wine obviously turns out to be a match made in comedic heaven. The same goes for Gil’s attempts to explain his bizarre time travelling situation to Bunuel and Dali, who calmly nod at a story that coheres with their surrealist mindset.

Having to return to the modern world in the day time, and keep the pleasures of the past for midnight, is the only drag in the film, but I suppose that’s the point. The film seems keen to stress the way every generation imagines the past as a vintage era, and fails to see the quality of the present. It’s hard to believe now, but people will, surely, look back on the 2000s and say ‘imagine living whilst those artists were at work.’ But who? Day-Lewis? the Coens? Nolan? Murakami? Who knows! Even Stein casually talks to Picasso evidently ignorant of how her name and his will turn out to be of cult, revered status in a century’s time.

And the film is also, of course, about the omnipresent Allen theme of how maybe we should not care if we are part of a meaningless universe, because as Gil puts it, at least by being in a place like Paris we can construct our own meaning and delightful experiences regardless of the coldness of Neptune.

I am astounded by the film’s revenue figures. Midnight in Paris has taken over $100m now, where Tall Dark Stranger managed a comparatively measly 30. Both have big names to apparently draw in the crowds: the former has Adrien Brody and Marion Cotillard, the latter Josh Brolin and Naomi Watts, amongst others. The figures suggest reason for optimism about the power of film criticism to spread the word about what’s hot or not, though I do wonder how much humour one would be able to take from the film if one’s knowledge of 20th century American literature was on the weak side. The Oxford audience I watched it with was howling, but I wondered what the reaction would have been in my hometown of Telford. Either way, have an average to good knowledge of our artistic heritage and I promise you: this will be a real treat. I really didn’t expect to be saying that.

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