Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Midnight in Paris

2011. Dir: Woody Allen. Starring: Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen and Corey Stoll. ●●●●○

Long time readers will know I have a masochistic relationship with Woody Allen, the sort of loyal passion to his work that brings me out to see all his releases, no matter how critically reviled. I have seen a number of truly awful films but every now and then he surprises and whilst his latest movie Midnight in Paris doesn't reach the heady heights of his 1970's-80's heyday, nor does it quite top his most recent return to form Vicky Cristina Barcelona however it is a delightful oddity that will be an enjoyable night out for any pseudo-intellectual or nostalgist.

Allen chooses to open with a jazz-scored montage of postcard scenes of modern Paris, it's bustling and beautiful and whilst the devise drags a little it's clear he's aim is to set up the romanticism of the city, a parade of lovers walking in the rain, scuttling boulevards with tiny cafes, a city of culture, architecture and wistful yearning. The extent of Allen's idolatry is to underline how his vision of Paris varies from other cities; this isn't the noisy, mishmash of Manhattan or the grimy morally complex London, instead it's a clear-cut city of Romance, a place where art can transport reality and magic might just come true.

We are then introduced to Luke Wilson's Gil Pender, a California hack visiting Paris with fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and finding inspiration for his novel from the Parisien vibe and Monet's Water Lily's. Slipping away from the stifling company of his future-in-laws and hectoring friends, he is picked up by an out of place 1920's Peugeot at the stroke of midnight and transported to a party filled with snazzily dressed gents and flappers. But appearances, or at least perceptions of appearances, cannot be trusted. This is no costume party with cigarette paper games but a time travel mystery, Pender has slipped back in time and is now hobnobbing with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, being crooned at by Cole Porter and receiving literary advice from Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

In the hands of a less self-assured writer the mechanics of the sci-fi premise may be explored and investigated, but the physics of this don't matter to Allen, even surrogate Pender is only mildly flabbergasted, stuttering and confused but not beyond asking Hemingway to read his manuscript. Instead his main concern is the feeling of escape inherent in the concept, Pender is obsessed with the past, his novel is set in a nostalgia shop, he yearns openly to have experienced the roaring 20's. His obsession comes from a need to escape the present, whether it's the vague distrust of modern US politics or the insufferable circumstances of his life, and it's no wonder that he seeks to escape.

In his trips to the past he falls for the luminous Marion Cotillard, shot in the style of romantic Hollywood, lit perfectly with soft focus she bursts from the screen, an untouchable beauty. But secretly she yearns to be equally transported back, wishing to revisit the Belle Epoque, Allen wants us to know that wishing for the past is fine, but there too nostalgia for bygone eras is rife and inescapable.

The film soars in it's time bending passages, whether it's Corey Stoll's machismo laden line-readings as Hemingway, or the farcical discussion between Pender and the Surrealists, with Adrien Brody squeezing every syllable of rhinocerous to great comic effect, or the gorgeous costuming and the plaintive musical cues, however in the modern world the movie misfires. McAdams' shrill performance, backed by her grotesquely rich republican parents and pedantic college alumni Michael Sheen, makes you wonder why the outwardly personable Pender would associate with any of these people let alone consider marrying them. Inez is the kind of horrific stereotype that lurches from blatant mistrust of the working classes to open disloyalty about her partner's work. The resolution of that aspect of the the story seems false and rushed, which perhaps might have worked better if Inez was a more sympathetic character.

I also find Allen's recent tendency to judge his characters and his non-audiences off-putting. It's fine to describe the Tea Party as crypto-fascist zombies, I may even agree with that assessment, but it's no way to win an argument against their policies. Equally Sheen is loathed for his pseudo-intellectual oratory, the low-point being when he tries to correct Carla Bruni's tour guide, but the audience cheer when Pender uses the same trick in giving background to a Picasso, quoting Kathy Bates' Gertrude Stein as if that's the only opinion that matters and smacking down Sheen with a description of it's lineage. If it's not about the rudeness of the act then it must be about the accuracy of the opinion, therefore it's fine to be a prick if you're right and you share the intellectual insight of Stein.

I disagree with Allen, to value one artistic interpretation over another is unbearably snobbish, the appreciation of art is purely subjective and whilst understanding the background and influences may aid in the discussion of form and content the feelings inspired are equally valid whether the audience is aware or not.

That probably sounds like a rant, and possibly that's undeserved. I really liked Woody Allen's latest, and I would recommend it to anyone, it's a lovely little piece that will transport you back to a gentler time, but I doubt it's anything more than that.


TomS said...

An interesting review, Ben. As you write about it, it seems as though you really liked it, more than you admit to. I felt the joy of the film through the joy of your descriptions of it. Something is making you resisit it....

Well, I'll get this out of the way. Appreciation of art, IMHO, is not purely subjective. Allen seeks to lampoon pretension by creating a dialog in which Gil uses something he has learned, to counter a blatant misstatement...and the satisfaction many viewers feel in this scene is the same satisfaction we feel when we look at an artwork after we learn something about it, and say, "oh yes, I understand it better...I get it." A feeling of enlightenment. That is when art becomes fun, even life-changing.

I make no bones about my bias here. I loved this film on many levels, most of all the clevernesss of the script and the unbridled fun of the supporting characters. I found a lot of satire in Inez and her parents, and felt the trip to Paris was a big turning point...Whatever brought them together was long past.

I think this will go in the books as one of Allen's classics. It might grow on you, too!

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

It's evidence of me being my typical cerebral self, but for all the soft beauty I wish Woody would have at least TRIED to make some sense of the portals...and why it takes Gil to the 20s, and Adriana to the 1890s and the tail to the 16th century. It makes for too many oddities. A lovely piece, but sadly a bit insubstantial for me. But, I love Woody so...

Runs Like A Gay said...

Hi chaps,

Thanks for the varied comments on Allen's latest foray.

Tom - I really liked this movie, even laughing a couple of times, so the joy I felt is definitely there.

I see what you say about the lampooning of pretention, I probably would have enjoyed that moment more if Sheen's character was fully rounded however all of the "bod guys" of the piece had nothing positive about them, no personality traits we could emphasise with so the victory rang hollow for me.


I want to agree, but if Allen tried and failed to explain the portal that would have been worse. Nothing irritates me more than bad science-fiction use of science-fact.