Midnight in Paris (Allen, 2011)

Today, we welcome a new guest contributor, Lauren Wilford, with a review of the new film by Woody Allen. Lauren studies Theatre and Art History at Seattle Pacific University. She wanted to add Philosophy as a third major but she watches movies instead. She blogs at Midas and the Movies.

Midnight in Paris: the title slides in one ear and out the other, the words worn down to wisps of meaning. Juxtaposing them is almost a joke — for what two words have borne the weight of greater romantic cliché? But wouldn’t you know that Woody Allen’s newest film brings both “midnight” and “Paris” back to glittering life, the images repossessed of the magic they once evoked. Midnight in Paris is a film with its brain on and its heart wide open, self-aware and swoony at once. Amid the sprightly proceedings, Allen reveals a shocking optimism that dares us to find the charm inside our lives, with just a sprinkling of experience to give it savor.

Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is in Paris, which is just about heaven by his standards. His well-bred fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), has different tastes, her sights set on a life of massages and social climbing in Malibu. The two are tagging along on her father’s business trip, and while Inez is intent on spending time brunching, wedding-planning, and entertaining the company of a smug fellow vacationer, Gil is trying to refine the manuscript of his novel. For Gil, Paris is the antidote to soul-sucking Hollywood, an emblem of romance and culture and everything writerly. Inez tells him he’s in love with a fantasy, and we might be inclined to believe her — until that very fantasy springs to life before our eyes.

Sure enough, as Gil wanders the Paris streets, the clock chimes midnight, and a Rolls Royce full of chatty French socialites scoops him up and plops him down right where the twenties are most thoroughly roaring. If that weren’t enough, the circle he runs into is chock full of the age’s greatest artists, from the Fitzgeralds to Cole Porter to Salvador Dali. Silly though this glut of riches may sound, it all unfolds simply and delightfully. Of course they all talk just like they write; of course they’re everything you’d imagine they’d be and more. This isn’t a true period piece. It’s a writer’s dream land, a Disneyland for the Educated, where the best minds of the Western world will take you out for dancing and pick your brain for ideas. It’s a Cinderella story for every creative person; Gil’s just a Hollywood hack, but here he is getting personal advice from T. S. Eliot. What can he do but gawk and stutter– and what can we do but grin? It’s deftly designed to make sure that we’re right there, that we’re both Gil and Woody Allen– wide-eyed on one end, wink-wink on the other.

For a while, the film breezes along with the sheer joy of throwing its characters together — watch for the muscular charisma of Corey Stoll’s Hemingway, Allison Pill’s fizzy Zelda, or the screwball brilliance of Adrian Brody as Dali. It’s the sort of film that knocks you out with its showy premise, and honestly you might not mind if it just let you hang out with its glitzy characters and ebullient performers for a while. But sure enough, the plot moves forward, confidently and surprisingly. The developments hang on the entrance of the entrancing, smoky Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard (who else?). She invites us in with dewy eyes and arching brows, smoldering like a cigarette and leaving us with no option but infatuation.

Midnight in Paris is a film about romance. The protagonist spends the film longing for an age other than his own, and on one level it’s hard to disagree with him. The film pits sterile restaurant small talk against carousels and Charlestons; it lays the affected blather of modern know-it-alls alongside the rich, intellectual banter of the historic salon. But a hint lies in the cinematography. The twenties segments are dripping with visual intrigue, cast in a warm, wine-y glow. They are seemingly fashioned after memory, the way a mind recalls the mood, the big moments, the good parts — the rest is shadowy. The flavor of these scenes is set in sharp contrast to the 21st century Paris, which is bathed in white-golden light, wide awake, laced with greens and blues. Paris past may be sexy, but Paris present is still fresh and sprawling, just as capable of eliciting Gil’s wonder if only he would realize it. Gil’s realization does eventually come, in a plot twist so masterfully natural that it would be a crime to recount it here (even amidst what has already been given away!). Suffice it to say that Midnight in Paris is about the way we are all sucked in by scenes and fantasies, whether like Gil’s vision of thrilling twenties artists or Inez’s attraction to a grandiose lifestyle. Each dreamland has its own hitches and delusions, and we eventually must wake up — though perhaps not in the way one might expect.

The film is damn near perfect for what it is. Fable, fairytale, and wish-fulfillment play out within a tight, well-paced narrative. It’s a movie about people looking for the golden age, and it’s beautifully shot in shades of gold to match. If your inclinations lean towards realism, the ham and wink-nudginess may prove a bit grating. Though the small roles are all fabulous, I couldn’t fully get behind the drawling, aw-gee Owen Wilson as “un poet,” and McAdams starts out buoyant but ends up indulging the shrewish side of her character. I was going to write about my slight disappointment with Allen’s refusal to go to the darker places in the fantasy. If the moral of the story is that all people are disappointed with their own time, why doesn’t he do a better job showing us the dull side of the twenties?

It’s because, surprisingly, that isn’t actually the moral. The analogy is so clearly drawn between the past and the present, established right in the opening with Allen’s silent, loving portrait of modern Paris, gorgeous as a Monet. Midnight in Paris isn’t about revealing the grass on the other side of the fence to be dry after all — it’s about realizing your own grass is just as green. It’s nostalgia for the present, the ability to open your eyes to the way your own world might entrance a time traveler. While the ending leaves us just toeing realism rather than planted in it, it’s lovely to know that an old cynic like Woody Allen still has a work of such charm, hope, and honest magic in him as this.

This review was originally published at Midas and the Movies.
  • Anonymous

    I really like your idea of ‘nostalgia for the present.’ There is something magical about ‘Midnight in Paris’ because it communicates a potentially depressing concept in an optimistic and romantic way – almost lighthearted. I suspect it has something to do with the importance of the places in the movie, and the role of Paris, which is comforting and timeless. There is even an iPhone app about Midnight in Paris and the scene locations, called ‘Movie Lover’s Paris’ (http://www.MovieLoversParis.com ) – and because of what you refer to as ‘nostalgia for the present’ the scenes on the map are almost like a photo album. Anyways, thanks for a great review.

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  • http://thefrailestthing.com/ Mike

    Midnight in Paris was delightful and along with affirming the present, it also suggests that there is more than one way to have a disordered relationship to the past. We may regrettably succumb to the “Golden Age” fallacy and reject our present, and we might also reject the past altogether uprooting ourselves from that which gives depth of field to lived experience. Nostalgia indiscriminately names too many sensibilities, unfortunately dismissing appropriate and enriching ways of being with the past. While Gil chooses the present, it is clear that he does so after having been nourished and educated by the past. Allen’s charming film affirms a what I think I’ll call a happy nostalgia. 

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  • Jennie

    Rereading this today – and struck by the last paragraph. I love “toeing realism rather than planted in it”. The ending brings us back to reality, doesn’t it? Did it really happen, or was it a lovely dream? The imagery is beautifully drawn. Bravo.