Woody Allen’s new film Midnight in Paris deals with an idea that has long haunted the labyrinthine halls of my intellect. We want what we can’t have until we have it. Midnight in Paris explores the concept that every generation perceives the previous generation as the Golden Age. Everyone longs for a time gone by, a time which is not the present. I can remember being a young child and pretending I was out in a covered wagon meandering across the great plains of Manifest Destiny. Somehow (at the time anyway) I thought living on the prairie might be a better life. And the old folks at home would tell yarns of their childhoods in the 1920s and 30s. They were oracles of the jazz age, when even the most run-of-the-mill department stores were adorned with golden fleur-de-lis, when you could walk into a smoke-filled room without going pale from fear of lung cancer. I thought it must have been a glorious time. And then I wanted to live in 1850s Massachusetts for a time. Anyhow, you get the point. Everyone longs to be a part of the world that his or her elders tell about. And when Auntie Anne plays griot and monologues about her younger days and the glamorous parties and dapper apparel, it’s all you can do not to listen.
For Gil (Owen Wilson), the time and place is the 1920s Paris glamor life-style in which all of the most proficient writers and artists of the time would gather together to drink and dance and have a good time. Gil is an aspiring writer himself, although of a nature much inferior to the characters he idolizes. He writes movie scripts! That’s right – he’s a Hollywood hack on vacation in Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) where he hopes to finish the novel he’s been working on. While in the city he begins to fall in love with its beauty and architecture and history. He suggests that after their marriage, he and Inez should move there. Inez, however, is not so tickled by the notion and insists that this fantasy of his is simply a romantic whim that will pass. Their differing tastes about company and socializing lead them one night to separate, so Gil goes for a walk through the dark, gold-lit streets of the city. He sits down, tired, on the steps of a church and as the bells strike midnight an old vintage car pulls up and the French-talking passengers beckon for him to climb in. They take him to a party where he meets, to his astonishment, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein (well played by Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, and a mysterious fashion student named Adriana played by Marion Cotillard.
The film makes no attempt to explain whether this time warp is real or a figment of Gil’s imagination. It doesn’t matter. The fantasy is just as clever either way. The different characters of the Paris social club all challenge Gil to rethink what he is doing with his life, whether he’s on the right course career-wise, whether he’s with the right woman. He convinces Gertrude Stein to read his book and she gives him a few pointers on it. Hemmingway challenges him not to ever fear death and to be “brave”. He develops a romance with Adriana, who believes that the 1890s are the Golden Age and longs to be a costume designer for the ballet. The screenplay (obviously written by Allen) is basking in beautiful simplicity. It’s short and tight and never feels stretched or contrived. In fact, it’s one of the most original films I’ve seen in a while. The time travel sequences are dripping with delectable nostalgia of the jazz age, a time when nobody seemed to care about the troubles of the world and when what mattered most was having a decent set of friends who don’t mind when you steel their girlfriend. The soundtrack is filled with romantic French guitars and Cole Porter tunes. It’s also delightful for a self-proclaimed student of American literature and arts like myself to catch the little in-jokes and references to novels, art pieces, and classic films.
The movie is also made in the style of a good old-fashioned romantic comedy perhaps like the kind Cary Grant would have starred in. It’s certainly the funniest and most heart-felt romantic comedy I’ve seen in a while. It’s a tribute to an old Hollywood (maybe one Woody Allen would like to travel back in time to). More and more, Gil’s relationship with Adriana makes him think about the life he’s living. Is it being lived to the fullest or is it empty? Is he honoring his dream of becoming a writer? Or is he settling for a Hollywood lifestyle of cranking out pointless screenplays? For a modern comedy, it’s quite a thoughtful little picture. Most comic pieces these days are all laughs and no heart. This has quite a fine balance of both. The hook of the story (time travel with long-dead artists) is so clever and quirky that it itself deserves a chuckle or two. It would have been very easy to simply turn his film into a series of time traveling misadventures and believe me, a less talented writer would have. But Woody Allen knows how to tell a story, a really good story, in just ninety short pages. I was enthralled with the film’s simplicity of plot and complexity of character. It seems Allen has again made a film about himself, and as such all of the characters are original. None are from the character bank.
I also love the look of the film. It truly captures the period with its dim, golden, incandescent lighting and gaudy red upholstered set-design. It’s a beautifully rich movie to look at – full of color and life. The shots of Paris in the daytime are also beautiful. The film begins with a montage of the Paris streets throughout different times of the day, each shot revealing something new about the city. I love the film’s invitation to just sit back and get swept up in its fantasy and mystery and comedy. Few movies still seek simply to entertain us. It doesn’t want to thrill us, it doesn’t want to scare us or make us ponder life’s imponderables. It only wants to dazzle us with the visualization of a dream that more than one film student, more than one aspiring writer, more than one art history aficionado has had.
One of my favorite scenes is a scene in which Gil meets Salvador Dali (Adrian Brody). He tells him about his problem in this time travel business. Dali, being a surrealist, does not see anything weird in living in two worlds at the same time. Dali is as eccentric as he must have been. The picture is littered with funny little scenes like those. Kathy Bates is matter of fact and straight shooting as Gertrude Stein, and Corey Stoll as Hemmingway is of course spare with words, yet perpetually profound. Marion Cotillard delivers an understated, slightly disinterested performance that brings a certain mystique to her character.
Midnight in Paris is one of those films that doesn’t have anything really good about them, other than there’s simply nothing wrong with them. There’s virtually no reason not to like this movie. It’s a movie in the lost style of George Cukor or Howard Hawkes. Allen’s 41st picture is a winner in my book – a breath of refreshing fresh air in a time when the genre of romantic comedy has gone stagnant as a birdbath and hatched baby mosquitos. Like the previous film I saw, The Tree of Life, Midnight in Paris left me in a much different mood. The Tree of Life left me contemplative and introverted. Midnight in Paris just made me feel good. This is a feel-good picture. Anybody who’s having a bad day, or whose panties are in a wad, or whose been driven up the wall, or whose gyroscope has been agitated had ought to come see this picture. Trust me, you’ll feel better. Do yourself a favor.
Gravier productions presents
Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Corey Stoll, Kathy Bates, Adrian Brody, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy, Michael Sheen, Nina Arianda, Marcial Di Fonzo Bo, David Lowe, Carla Bruni, Léa Seydoux.
Directed by Woody Allen. Rated PG-13