Midnight in Paris
By Brett McCracken
May 20, 2011
Though Woody Allen will always be known first and foremost as a New York filmmaker (he’s made more than 20 films set in Manhattan), the 70-something director has recently set his eyes on Europe, where six of his last seven films have been set.
For Allen, place certainly seems to be a common inspiration, at least as much as his ingénue actress muses (Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, Scarlett Johansson, etc). In his most recent film, the Cannes Film Festival-opener Midnight in Paris, the muse is certainly the city of Paris—the enchanting, storied, romantic City of Lights. From the film’s opening—a pre-title sequence array of postcard images of Paris from all angles, in rain or shine—to its closing shot, the city itself is the leading star.
What is it about Paris that is so intoxicating? The film opens with its protagonist, Gil (Owen Wilson), making his case for the special magic of Paris to his dubious fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). Gil is a screenwriter from Hollywood feeling creatively stuck. He’s written his first book but has tepid confidence in it, and Inez offers little help. Gil needs inspiration. He and Inez are in Paris with her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy, slightly befuddling caricatures of monied Republican dilettantes), and Gil sees the city as most writers probably do—as a passionate, intellectually dynamic kindred spirit.
“I feel like Parisians get me,” says Gil, who has visions of himself living a bohemian writer’s life on the Left Bank, strolling the leafy streets with a baguette in hand. Inez and her parents can’t relate; they’re more interested in shopping for expensive things, drinking wine and visiting tourist sights with Paul (a hilarious Michael Sheen), a friend of Inez’ with a penchant for name-dropping and offering pedantic tutorials at every opportunity. All of this further alienates Gil, who escapes this insufferable group every chance he gets. He prefers experiencing Paris on his own, and begins to take solo midnight strolls, dreaming about what it would have been like to experience the expat writer’s life in Paris in the ‘20s. And this is where Midnight in Paris really gets magical (in more ways than one).
Gil gets his wish. When the clock strikes midnight one night, Gil is whisked away in a 1920s-style taxi. Inside, he meets none other than F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), who take him on a wild night of parties, jazz clubs and twilight café meetings with the likes of Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), and dozens of other legendary figures from the artistic/literary circles of Paris in the '20s (Cole Porter, Man Ray, Luis Buñuel, Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot and more).
For Gil, this is heaven. He enlists the help of Hemingway and Stein to critique his book manuscript. He even sparks a love connection with aspiring fashion designer Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who doubles as Picasso’s current muse. Gil is smitten. Wholly unexplained by Allen (for the best), this after-midnight time warp becomes a regular thing for Gil. Each day he carries on with Inez (who is growing closer to Paul and more impatient with Gil), and each night he carouses with his coterie of kindred literary spirits from a forgotten time. As he grows closer to Adriana he begins to grow distant from Inez. Why are they even together? The only interest they share is that they both like Indian food, Gil observes.
[SPOILER ALERT] Refreshingly, Midnight never becomes a film about infidelity. Early on, it’s clear that Gil and Inez aren’t meant for each other and probably won’t last. And indeed, when it turns out that they don’t last, we are grateful that a trainwreck marriage was averted. Rather than wallowing in misery, nihilism and self-destructive neurosis (as some Woody Allen films have a tendency to do), Midnight takes a (relatively) optimistic, morally mature posture.
Gil has the self-awareness to realize that Inez isn’t right for him (she hates Paris, hates walking in the rain and hates most everything he loves), but neither is this fantasy world that Adriana and her 1920s cohort represent. It’s just escapism, romanticism, nostalgic grasping for a fictitious life more meaningful than reality.
Gil realizes his idealizing of Paris in the 1920s and nostalgia for “the golden days” is really just a denial of the painful present. We all have the illusion that the grass is greener on the other side—that our mundane lives might be happier if we lived in another place or another time. This really hits home for Gil when he and Adriana are transported one night even farther into the past: Into 1890s “Belle Époque” Paris, where they experience the Moulin Rouge with older school bohemians like Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec and Degas. This is Adriana’s version of the idealized “golden days” escape. Gil comes to see that one man’s exotic dream is another man’s banality, and it’s all just a reflection of humanity’s restlessness and penchant for thinking happiness is as easy as a change of scenery.
Midnight is a tasteful, charming, light-as-a-macaroon comedy that both entertains and provokes thought. Like Paris itself, the film is both aesthetically pleasing (gorgeously photographed, full of sumptuous colors and costumes) and intellectually engaging. Casual, relaxed and hopeful in ways Allen protagonists rarely are, Owen Wilson turns in one of his best performances here. He’s plays the earnest everyman well, taking in the glorious sights and sounds around him with wide-eyed wonder.
At the end of the day, though, Paris (past and present) is the real star of this show. A veritable feast for the senses, Midnight is a highlight reel of Paris’ glories (Versailles, Rodin statues, Monet’s gardens at Giverny, Notre Dame, Sacre Cour, the Eiffel Tower, etc.), making one think the film was bankrolled by the city’s tourism office. Allen’s clear affection for the city (reportedly his second favorite, next to New York) and its unmistakable allure gives the film the added vibrancy of a work made not out of cynicism or fear, but out of unabashed love.
Perhaps Woody Allen is bored with America, like Gil. Perhaps that’s why he’s taken to making films in Europe. Like Gil, he understands that new scenery and new contexts can be artistically inspiring. But also like Gil, Allen clearly understands that while escaping one’s everyday routine can be healthy, it’s also not a solution to be idealized as the final answer of happiness. Even so, escapism can be calibrating. Even in the form of a 90-minute time-traveling comedy.