The Cinema


Midnight in Paris: Twilight
of an auteur

Woody Allen's elegiacal tale is the work of a master craftsman, albeit of a writer whose grasp on an imagined past seems stronger than his hold on the present
Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Originally published at Edifice Rex Online
'Midnight in Paris' poster
Midnight in Paris
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Owen Wilson and
Rachel McAdams

Gil Pender is a fast-talking nerd, an insecure intellectual with a cynical misanthropic streak and a successful Hollywood screenwriter who nevertheless longs to write the Great American novel (where have we seen that before?). His fiance Inez is a shallow social climber with whom Gil has nothing in common. They are on a trip to Paris, accompanied by Inez's wealthy and reactionary parents. (Really? Who does that?)

Paris is a city Inez appreciates mostly for the shopping, but with which Gil is obsessed. At least, he is obsessed with an idea of Paris: the Paris of the inter-war years, of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, of Dali and Picasso, of Cole Porter and Gertrude Stein. Gil Pender, in other words, is obsessed with an era that was already fading into legend when Woody Allen himself was coming of age.

I'm sure there are plenty of young(ish) writers who still look upon the 1920s as a Golden Age, but as one who came of age in the 1980s, I can say with some confidence that far more of my peers looked for inspiration to the Beats than to the Bloomsbury Group, and neither Allen's script nor Owen Wilson's performance convince me that Gil Pender really did reach adulthood in the 1980s or 1990s. In a movie whose central conceit is time travel, it is unfortunate that its portrayal of the present feels nearly as dreamlike as its portrayal of the past.

That said, though flawed, there is a lot to like about Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen's sketches of such legends as Dali and Hemingway are shallow but amusing, whether or not one is familiar with the targets of the jokes. And Owen Wilson convincingly portrays the fish-out-of-water feeling any accidental time traveller must surely feel when he or she first sets foot in the long lost past.

The film's major flaws are with its present-day framing story, in which Allen seems to have had very little interest. Where the characters of the 1920s are sketches, those living in 2010 are mere cliches — and nasty cliches at that.

Inez is less a type than an old joke in a short, modern couture dress. Shallow, shrewish and slutty, she is not particularly bright and we can only guess at what either might see in the other.

Inez, her parents and her eventual lover, the pseudo-intellectual blow-hard Paul (a type that was very funny when briefly mis-interpreting Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, but that drags as an extended joke) exist only to stack the deck, to make us sympathize with Gil when he falls in love with another woman.

Happily, the most problematic elements of Midnight in Paris are easily ignored while one watches it. Allen sets the elegiac tone with a wonderfully indulgent opening — a three-minutes montage of Paris street scenes set to spare, period jazz — then deftly introduces us to the dysfunctional couple.

By the time, 15 minutes in, an ancient Peugeot doubling as a smoke-belching time machine takes Gil into the past, we are ready to accept the impossibility without a qualm and as happy as he is to escape his in-laws and his bride-to-be.

Of course, we have been here before; time travel is old hat to most of us. Our pleasure comes in knowing what Gil only slowly accepts: that those women in flapper dresses really are flappers; that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are that Scott and Zelda; and that the piano player who looks and sounds just like Cole Porter really is the man himself.

Gil has got his wish. He has (somehow) stumbled into the smoke-filled world of his heroes and — even better! — they like him! He flirts with Zelda, drinks with Hemingway, has his work-in-progress (positively) critiqued by Gertrude Stein and (of course) falls in love — with Pablo Picasso's mistress Adriana, no less, a woman who feels as out-of-place in her time as Gil does in his.

Midnight In Paris is at its best when set in the 1920s; the story seems to have had Allen's full attention. While not especially original or insightful, his portrayals of the famous names of the era are great fun, and work well enough even if you are not familiar with them; the in-jokes are only a bonus.

Gil's romance with Adriana is believable and even touching. Marin Cotillard's character is probably the only one besides the protagonist himself that Allen bothered to write in more than one dimension, and so the nature of her fateful decision is moving and logical within the conceits of the story.

Since Midnight in Paris is a romance as much as it is a comedy, we get a happy (or at least, an optimistic) ending in the person of 2010's lone sympathetic player, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), the Antique Dealer With the Heart of Gold. Though she is no more solid than Inez, the viewer at least is free to imagine she is something other than a bigot or a rapacious shopper.

Midnight in Paris succeeds as a gentle dream of might-have-beens and if-onlies, a love letter to a past the author himself could only have known in his imagination. It is also a sometimes very funny comedy, a reminder of the days when Allen was a writer who, if he did not quite speak for his generation, certainly spoke to a significant portion of it.

Midnight In Paris doesn't deserve the awards it has won, or even been nominated for, but it makes for a charming date-movie that won't insult your intelligence (at least, not much) and that will leave you smiling. You could do much worse than to rent or download it the next time you want to curl up on a rainy spring evening.