Paris at the Stroke of Midnight

Woody Allen’s love letter to a great city, and a pladoyer for the creative power of nostalgia

On The Town | Valerie Crawford-Pfannhauser | October 2011

When it comes to a filmmaker as relentlessly prolific as Woody Allen – over 45 years – the critique of his work and comparison of his films to one another is almost an art form in its own right. And most definitely a conversation piece. So when Allen’s latest film Midnight is Paris is rated by critics as one his best works in a decade, then this is certainly upping expectations. This is a league with such delights as Melinda and Melinda, Match Point, Scoop, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Whatever Works and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

Literate, funny and frequently eloquent, Midnight in Paris is a captivating film that excels on every level, including the inspired casting and marvellous performances. But what takes this film into a league of its own is that it is not only entertaining – it is a magical experience.  Despite the breezy tone, it is one of those rare films that’s complex enough to reward repeat viewings, to relive the pleasure.

Midnight in Paris opens with an extended photo-essay by Darius Khondji that explores the evocative beauty of Paris, a contrast of well-known spots to back streets, the city at different times of day and in different weather. It is clear from this postcard-view montage that the French capital is to be added to the list of cities that Allen adores, embraced in a way that appeals to anyone who has either visited the city, or wants to.

As so often in Allen’s films, the lead character is someone who should really be played by the director himself as a younger man. In an unlikely but astute casting choice, Owen Wilson is a sympathetic Woody Allen surrogate, with his casual charm taking the edge off the character’s familiar potential for moroseness. His performance is poignant and funny, infusing the character of Gil Pender with Woody-isms we have come to love, including the nervousness, the exasperation at other’s pretensions and a penchant for saying the wrong thing.

Gil is a successful screenwriter, but he is also an aspiring, full-of-self-doubt novelist. He is engaged to the beautiful but selfish Inez (Rachel McAdams) as they tag along on her parents visit to Paris. The pseudo-cultured and glibly provincial are well-represented by Inez and her wealthy parents John and Helen, who clash head on with the liberal views of their shaggy, would-be bohemian son-in-law-to-be.

Ironically, it’s the tag-along Gil, rather than his hosts, who is actually seduced by Paris, who can’t get over the beauty and romance that it offers at every turn. He is particularly fascinated by the vanished world of Paris in its artistic heyday of the 1920s. Caught up in this, he starts to contemplate the idea of throwing over his comfortable lifestyle built on studio money and coming to live permanently in Paris to write novels like his literary heroes.

"You’re in love with a fantasy," Inez tells him dismissively. Gil starts having second thoughts about everything; it bothers him that Inez would rather shop than discover true Parisian culture, and he starts to sense that they don’t really know each other. Things are made worse by the arrival of one of Inez’s former classmates, Paul (played to the insufferable hilt by Michael Sheen), a pretentious literary professor who makes out he is an expert on practically everything. Paul enchants Inez, but Gil is never convinced.

Caught up in an idealised view of bygone bohemian Paris and inspired by the magic of the deepening evening, Gil takes a stroll and gets picked up at midnight on a street corner by a group of mysterious revellers in a vintage automobile. He is stunned to find himself in some kind of magical time warp, rubbing shoulders with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemmingway, Picasso, Dali and a whole cache of artists.

In these scenes the film truly animates with superb cameo appearances, stylized dialogue and the irresistibly fantastical. Gil gets to discuss his novel-in-progress, which is about the owner of a nostalgia shop and therefore reads like science fiction to Stein’s literary salon. The characters bicker, engage in small talk, philosophize in dialogue that’s witty and often profound as they seem to live continuously from one soirée to the next. Gil’s ingenious enthusiasm entrances Picasso’s beautiful mistress Adriana, just as discontented with her times as Gil is with his.

Midnight in Paris is a love letter to the city at night and the nostalgia for bygone era when art and literature were the stuff of life and the prattle of everyday. The film’s moral is clear: Nostalgia is our own creation, an emotional projection of our own desires, rather than an actual time and place that has been lost; and it can keep us from living to our fullest in the present.

But Allen refuses to dismiss its pleasures, instead suggesting that nostalgia can serve an artistic and intellectual purpose, as long as it enhances, rather than distracts us from, the here and now.

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