It’s easy to be overwhelmed by Woody Allen’s prolific film output, and even more so by the fact that the vast majority of these films tirelessly obsess over the same troublesome themes of infidelity, guilt and existential crisis. As such, it was pleasing to hear that the plot of Midnight in Paris suggested a move away from Allen’s usual neurotic loop, towards a fairy-tale world of time-travel and rubbing shoulders with some of history’s greatest creative minds. Could it be that Allen had gotten back in touch with his more playful and creative side?
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a screenwriter-turned-novelist who is having trouble showing the first draft of his book to anyone. He goes to Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams), and immediately falls in love with the city. Stifling his thoughtful appreciation of the city however are Inez’s rigid, Republican parents, and a couple of friends, Paul and Carol (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda) who they bump into by chance. Gil’s discontentment with his social surroundings and his belief that he ‘was born in the wrong era’ come to a head when, during a midnight stroll, a vintage car pulls up and whisks him back to the 1920’s, where he gets caught up in the artistic scene, partying with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, receiving life advice from Ernest Hemingway, and having his work critiqued by Gertrude Stein, among other charming chance encounters.
The build-up to this fairy-tale, time-travelling journey is an amusing combination of social awkwardness and pretentiousness that Allen is an expert at picking apart. Watching Gil begrudgingly listen to Paul’s textbook knowledge of art and culture while Inez swoons over his pseudo-intellect is pure cringe comedy, while his light political conversations with Inez’s parents, meanwhile, are an amusing condemnation of American ‘Tea Party’ mentality. In the company of these people, Paris appears too clean and clinical; a mere postcard of the City of Love.
In contrast, 1920’s Paris is a sepia-tinted fairy-tale, with the music, clothing and, of course, its characters all being inspired by the romantic writings of this period, rather than historical textbooks. Gil’s constant look of stupification and high-pitched bedazzlement at his surroundings does tend to break the spell a bit, but the idealised depiction of the 1920’s creative elite does well to offset this. All the characters are comical archetypes of their life’s work, complementing the magical mood that Allen infuses the film with. So, inevitably Hemingway talks in his sonorous voice of bravery, love, and shooting charging lions as if he were reading one of his novels, while Salvador Dali (a short, sharp turn from Adrien Brody) amusingly envisions Gil in one of his paintings, freely associating him with a rhinoceros as his face melts on the sand. This method of portraying these characters makes them all instantly endearing, and you don’t need to be an art history and culture buff to appreciate these depictions (though some knowledge is advised).
The set up may be charming and light-hearted, but it all works towards expressing the theme of the discontentment inherent in living in the present day, and, therefore, existing. Just as Gil is discontent in his present, so his 1920’s fling Adriana (Marion Cotillard) longs for the Belle Epoche. In an over-obvious scene where a horse-drawn carriage takes Gil and Adriana to her idealised period, the creatives there long for the Renaissance, at which point you may find yourself screaming ‘Yes! We f**king get it! We’re doomed to be malcontent, whatever time and place we’re in!’ Yet, while this may seem like a cop-out to the usual Allenian themes, Midnight in Paris wraps up neatly, with a conclusion in which Gil converts his existentialism into spontaneity, and a bit of his nostalgic Parisian fantasy comes to join him in the present day.
Midnight in Paris is a return to form for Allen who, like his character Gil, appears to have regained an appreciation of art and life in this film. With the exception of Rachel McAdams as Gil’s whiny fiancé, there is not a dull character in sight, and Owen Wilson does well in being the obligatory embodiment of Allen, although his excess of neurosis and wide-eyedness amazement at every artist or author he meets does eventually start to chafe. While the film is generally well-paced, the horse-and-cart journey to the Belle Epoque removed any hint of subtlety from Allen’s thematic obsessions, and slowed things down at a crucial late point in the film. Nevertheless, Midnight in Paris is a warm and charming celebration of art, the ever-changing face of the city and of life itself.
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