Midnight in Paris

© 2011 – Sony Pictures Classics

I was expecting another Woody Allen film.  It was 1:30 on a dismal Friday afternoon, I had a free movie pass, and I honestly just wanted to get it out of the way.  I wanted to be able to say, “Yeah, I saw Midnight in Paris, but it was nothing magical.”  And it wasn’t, at least for the first twenty minutes.  It suffered from the usual Allen plot syndrome of a torpid couple entertaining a new place and new people infinitely more interesting than their present lives, ignoring the too-obvious signs that they are not right for each other. If you have not seen this film, or have not yet had your impression shattered by the media’s crude disrespect of keeping twisty plots a secret, I’ll warn you now:  here be spoilers.

The couple is on a tag along trip in Paris with her parents.  Gil (Owen Wilson) is an ineffectual Hollywood hack screenwriter, desperate to become a more serious writer of novels, and his upper-class suburban fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) is a materialist, impatient with Gil’s romanticism about a city he barely knows.  But Gil cannot help but be enchanted by the city’s beauty and history, a place that ignites his desire to get published and be compared to the upper echelon of American writers who have resided overseas.

While Inez is off shopping with her imperious parents for new furniture for the couple’s prospective home in Malibu Beach, Gil wanders the streets of Paris, exploring the historic sites that were inspirations for many culturally significant events and artistic works.  He eventually gets lost, and at the stroke of midnight is whisked away in an antique Peugeot to the smoky nightlife of 1920’s Paris, where he becomes acquainted with the elite coterie of artists and writers who made Paris their home during this magical era.

Gil awakens the next morning in a state of, as he frequently labels it, cognitive dissonance.  Gallivanting with the Fitzgeralds from one gin-joint to the next and listening to Ernest Hemingway’s masculine repartee has left Gil incredulous of what has happened to him.  Nonetheless, he is suddenly propelled to revise his stunted novel-in-progress, refusing the editing advice of Paul (Michael Sheen), an overly-intellectualized pedant and casual acquaintance from home.  Inez could not be bothered with Gil’s obsessions, which include a simple but burning desire to walk in the rain.  She would much rather go on touristic excursions with Paul and his wife.  Even as Paul pompously corrects a tour guide (Carla Bruni-Sarkozy) at the Musée Rodin, he is an object of worship for Inez.  For her, Paul is everything Gil is not.

The characters were, for the most part, the typical fare for an Allen film:  a neurotic, artistically stunted man surrounded by insufferable intellectuals, and women with desires and values incongruous to those of their lovers.  Those skeletons are the result of his propensity for recycling old scripts, but Midnight is Allen’s most adventurous experiment to date.  Unlike Vicky Cristina Barcelona, another of Allen’s Americanized assaults on Europe where the “foreigners” make the film more tolerable—Penelope Cruz intrinsically saved that foray—in this film we find an actual charming Owen Wilson.  He doesn’t feel insecure about being around so many accomplished artists, or try to impress Picasso’s lover Adriana (Marion Cotillard).  He is just being himself, something we find both sweet and somehow admirable in the face of overwhelming celebrity presence, however anachronistic.

At times the need to stuff as many famous faces in a short picture does appear gracelessly idolatrous, and it is fuel for America’s stuffy academics who are hugely proud of themselves if they manage to “get” all of the references.  But it is a comment on how we all feel about the time and place in which we live.  Gil comes to realize he is not satisfied at home, and begins to adopt the sensibilities of a 1920’s man.  What Gil doesn’t realize is we are all Miniver Cheevys wishing for bygone eras.  Gil thinks of his time-travel friends as the great artists and writers they are known as today, but at the time, they were self-dubbed the Lost Generation, and with good reason.  There is even a brief cameo by “Tom Eliot,” a Missouri-born expatriate who wanted so badly to be European.  Gil falls for Adriana not only because she embraces adventure and mystery, but because she is from a different time and place; in short, everything Inez is not.

We aren’t overly concerned with the reality or illusion of Gil’s nightly adventures, even though he is.   But it doesn’t matter.  The world has been created, and we find that places rather than other people are actually the characters’ long-lost lovers.  For so many years, Woody Allen has made a character of New York, the place which bore him and instilled in him the simultaneous narcissism and self-deprecation we are so used to.  In Annie Hall, New York, in the end, seems to be a much more compatible companion to Allen’s Alvy Singer than Annie could ever be.  Like Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Paris represents everything Gil longs for, a passion that would be missing from his Malibu mansion.

by Robin Beaudoin


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