Silver Screen: Midnight in Paris

Posted Wednesday, June 1, 2011 in Culture

Silver Screen: Midnight in Paris

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris.

by Brandon Carter

Midnight in Paris continues Woody Allen's streak of making his best movies (in recent memory) in cities other than New York: Match Point's London, Vicky Christina's Barcelona, and now Midnight's Paris all see the 75 year old invigorated in ways he was most decidedly not with schlock like Whatever Happens.

Owen Wilson plays Gil, a self-effacing hack of a screenwriter who really wants to be a novelist but is afraid of the badgering his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) would subject him to if he did.  Plus, screenwriting pays him well enough to be able to vacation in Paris with Inez and her snobbish parents (Mimi Walker and Kurt Fuller, both excellent).

As Gil walks around Paris with Inez and her insufferable friend Paul (Michael Sheen), the distance between his priorities and her priorities become increasingly evident.  He can barely hold a conversation with either Paul or Inez's parents without a trace of disgust, and really, who could?  They're awful, even when they don't mean to be, so Gil elects to walk the streets of Paris by himself rather than go dancing or wine tasting with Paul.

Gil’s self-imposed exile represents an evolution of sorts in Allen’s career.  Where Paul might have been a close friend of Allen’s protagonist in, say, Manhattan – to which Midnight is most likely to be compared, in part due to the extended prologue of urban photography that opens both films – here his pseudo-intellectualism is held up as an anathema.  Could it be that, after all these years, Allen is growing more comfortable with the idea of being alone?

Not quite.  The film plunges whimsically down the rabbit hole when Gil is out walking one night and comes upon an old Rolls-Royce filled with partygoers from another lifetime.  They invite him to join them, and before he can get his head around what's happening, he finds himself conversing with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and a belligerent but well-intentioned Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) at a party, two of his literary heroes.

A parade of great artists working at the height of their powers in the 1920s follow, and Gil proudly declares, more than once, that this was the greatest of eras, the Golden Age of western thought and creativity.  Every night come midnight, the Rolls Royce pulls up and Gil is whisked off to another party or another meeting.  He's astounded to hear Gertrude Stein (the reliably great Kathy Bates) consent to reading the first few chapters of his fledgling novel, or to come face to face with Pablo Picasso's secret mistress Adriana (the dreamy Marion Cotillard), with whom he quickly falls in love.  Meanwhile, Inez's father becomes suspicious Gil's night time activity and hires a private investigator to find out where he goes every night.

Gil's time traveling adventures are played up for laughs as the cartoonish episodes they are, but as the illusion begins to fade, most notably when he experiences another leap to an earlier period in time Adriana refers to as "her Golden Age," a sadness creeps into the picture that acknowledges nostalgia as fear of death.  First Gil, and then Adriana, have preserved their romantic notions of a time past as a way of living forever through art, inhabiting places and people that are frozen in time and are therefore real (historical) and unreal (fantasy).

Nailing a fine balance between wide-eyed, romantic innocence and wistful disillusionment, Wilson turns out to be the perfect vehicle for Allen's fairy tale.  Cinematographer Darius Khondji, in addition to his painterly approach to past and present iterations of the most romantic city in the world, explores previously hidden lines and crags in Wilson's face to illuminate a man who is caught between the exhilaration of what his life could be and the weariness of what it's become.  In other words, he's stuck in the present.

The problem with the present is that it’s never static, constantly moving, inevitably, towards death.  Coming from a 75-year-old filmmaker who has always made a joke of his extreme death anxiety, this articulate, bittersweet acceptance of what is lost and what is gained as we move through life makes Midnight in Paris one of the most genuinely touching pictures Woody Allen has ever made.

blog comments powered by Disqus