Midnight in Paris
Directed by Woody Allen
Released in 2011
We all wear our rose-tinted glasses when looking back at the past. When time cements itself in history, only captured through the technological and cultural means of yesterday, it codifies the events, making our present look featherweight in comparison. Such literal backward-thinking frames the characters of Midnight in Paris. It fittingly serves as the folly for them as well.
Woody Allen's 41st feature length picture strolls through fantasy while still lightly harnessed by reality. There is surprise in the very nature of the story, in how it deviates from what is likely expected from a film billed as a "romantic comedy". Paris, a character of such pronounced beauty, wonderfully captured by cinematographer Darius Khondji, housed the great intellectuals throughout history. Their contributions and spirits have left an imprint on the city to this day, as if their aura still lingers in the air. And in Midnight in Paris, not only does their ambiance remain, but their flesh and blood as well. See, the main character Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) transports back to a 1920s version of Paris by midnight, via an antique Peugeot. He freely interacts with them, and they with him, until the night is no longer young. The science behind such time-travel is never explained, and it does not need to be, for the audience's suspension of disbelief is willfully checked in with the coat hanger from the start.
Gil is visiting Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her two parents, played by Kurt Fuller from Wayne's World and Mimi Kennedy, the nagging Karen Clark from In the Loop. Gil falls in love with the city (who doesn't?), though Inez does not share such a passionate bond. It does not help that Inez's two old friends appear without invitation, dictating their trip's events from then on. They are Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), the former "didactic" and a "pseudo-intellectual" espousing trivia of such obscurity to cover their falsity, and the latter simply fawning over her prize. It is no surprise Gil and Inez take notice, but for different reasons. Paul's arc from insufferable hack to something more stands by as nothing more than a minor subplot but is both entertaining and interesting as it is not hard to imagine Allen's critics labeling him the same in the past. The company Gil finds himself with Paris by day is rather dull, and certainly by conscious choice.
But of course everyone will look unappealing when put beside Paris. Yet, Allen proves us wrong. He fills The City of Light with an equally bright set of faces. Tom Hiddleston (also in Thor this summer) perfectly embodies F. Scott Fitzgerald, as does Alison Pill as his wife, Zelda. Corey Stoll's Ernest Hemingway speaks with such profound formality that either serves to prod at our current lack of eloquence or perhaps reveal the romantic view Allen himself regards these subjects. Perhaps it is neither, but rather a parody (he is basically drunk the whole time) that remains completely unironic and respectful. Kathy Bates actualizes the strong-willed Gertrude Stein whose Paris years are so storied. There are so many other familiar costumes donned, hair styles recognized, names dropped that threaten to push this film into a cameo circle of famous flappers and sheiks. But Allen directs the nods so respectfully and with enough restraint, and the actors fill their respected roles so brilliantly, that it never sinks into a panache but remains a loveletter to a place and time. To reveal any more names would rob a sense of surprise (do not look at a cast list for your own good), but I will say to be ready for a lively appearance from Adrien Brody.
There probably is not another actress alive who better personifies the elegance, maturity, and, of course, beauty of Paris than Marion Cotillard. Her grace and looks do not belong to our time it seems - filmmakers have taken note by casting her in period pieces like Nine, Public Enemies and her Oscar-winning La Vie en Rose - and she turns in a dignified performance as the mistress of the arts that eventually catches Gil's eye. Her character, Adriana, is similarly stuck idolizing a past she knows not much of like Gil. Their shared infatuation for the yesteryears forms a special bond, one that ultimately faces conflict as they face reality. There is an endless longing for what came before throughout mankind that ultimately inhibits progress if pursued to action, or inaction. We must face the realization that the history books are not written until after our time, at which point the longing to return to a time before the most recent stretch of progress, technology and life seems so enticing. Allen explores this theme with interesting results, both heralding the past yet not declaring it the be-all and end-all.
Owen Wilson fits into the Woody Allen mold remarkably well, handling such lofty themes and variable moods with ease. Watch The Darjeeling Limited for proof of the skills of the Drillbit Taylor star, and then this film will cast aside any lingering doubt. The lines, of course written by Allen, are witty and quick, filled with references to pop culture yet not to the point they are esoteric. Gil's first midnight stroll produces hilarious reactions of disbelief and stunned silence, and Allen creates realistic situations (as realistic as they can be in a fantasy really) that Wilson handles with subtlety that never turns outrageous. A successful but shallow screenwriter searching for depth as he struggles with composing a novel, Gil encounters the dream scenario when he hands his manuscript to Stein. His story, about a man who owns a nostalgia shop ("what's that?"), and the insightful critique Stein offers, helps him reconcile with his true self and his own time.
There is so much to admire in Allen's direction; you would think after 40 films he would take the easy road but that is not his style. The early scenes when Gil, Inez, Carol and Paul stroll through Versailles display Allen's talents as equating blocking to power. Paul leads and dominates the frame, for he craves the reverence. Gil is a stronger man than he, and when he calls Paul's bluff on his lack of knowledge (with a piece of info acquired through a rather humorous circumstance), he simply walks out of frame, leaving Paul to answer to the two cheerleaders who may raise doubt. Allen provides such careful coverage of the party scenes as well, surveying the scene with purpose, showing key faces, hiding others to find out later of their presence. He is an undisputed master, and Midnight in Paris may as well be his 21st century triumph showing his skills have not faded but only aged like the wine they drink so liberally here.
I love Midnight in Paris. It is one of the more charming films to arrive in some time, reminding me much of the aforementioned The Darjeeling Limited in its respectful treatment of such a beautiful locale, transferring to a rich celluloid feel that is best seen in a cinema. The dialogue is witty and lacking pretense, and offers a new look - and perhaps renewed interest - in such critical figures of our Western culture. It digs even deeper, however. Its mediation on love, of its weight and potential for eternity, ties with its views on the past, for both must be carefully considered before diving into. The initial glamor can wear off, for only time can tell what is true. Only time...
4.5 Stars Out of 5