Movie Review: Midnight in Paris (2011)
WARNING: MOVEABLE SPOILERS
I never thought Woody Allen would make me this happy again. I thought he and I were done. I once wrote: “Our relationship has gone on too long and I know all his bad habits.” And that was back in 1998. Since then, after “Sweet and Lowdown,” a good film but hardly one that made me happy, he disappointed with “Small-Time Crooks,” “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” “Hollywood Ending,” “Anything Else,” and “Melinda and Melinda.” He revived, ironically, away from New York, with “Match Point,” which, sadly, I never saw. I did see “Scoop” (eh), “Cassandra’s Dream” (bleh) and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” which everyone liked and I didn’t, and I told myself that was it. Life was short, Woody was old, we were done. Move on.
I didn’t believe the good reviews for “Midnight in Paris,” either. Hadn’t everyone liked “Vicky,” too? The people praising the film probably didn’t know Woody like I knew Woody. Eventually though, I succumbed. Paris and Hemingway? Rachel McAdams and Carla Bruni and Marion Cotillard? Porquoi pas?
Glad I did. At 75, Woody has finally found the leading man to replace himself. I never realized how Woodyish Owen Wilson’s inflection already was—but west coast rather than east coast; gentile rather than Jewish; laid-back rather than angsty.
Wow. A west coast Woody. What would Alvy Singer say?
Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter attempting a novel, and visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). Early on, he waxes rhapsodic about Paris, particularly Paris in the 1920s, and she tells him, “You’re in love with a fantasy,” to which he responds, holding her, “I’m in love with you.” Both are true. Or: the she he imagines her to be is the fantasy. They’re obviously not suited for each other. She doesn’t like Paris, she doesn’t like Paris in the rain, her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) are conservative assholes: the father is all about mergers and Bush-era Francophobia; the mother shops and carps. Gil and Inez have nothing in common. They’re the couple thrown together in the beginning of the film so the filmmaker can break them up in the end.
By this point, too, Woody has already picked sides by declaring his own love for Paris. The first few minutes of the film consist entirely of five-second shots around the city—the Arc d’Triomph here, Luxemburg Gardens there, Eiffel Tower everywhere—backed by a mellow jazz score. It’s “Manhattan” without the Gershwin grandiosity or Woody narration. It’s truly beautiful.
So Gil not only has to deal with a combative wife and her Republican parents but a perennial Woody nemesis: the pedantic blowhard after his girl, here named Paul and played exceptionally well by a bearded Michael Sheen. Paul is an expert, or “expert,” on everything from French wine (“too much tannin,” he says of the ’59) to Rodin. He even corrects (incorrectly) the tour guide at the Rodin Museum on whether Camille Claudel was Rodin’s wife or mistress. The tour guide, in a nice touch, is played by Carla Bruni, the former mistress, current wife, of the president of France.
Apparently Paul is also a great dancer, and he and his wife ask Gil and Inez along for a night of dancing. Inez accepts, Gil begs off, and instead walks the streets of Paris. Inez tells him not to get lost so of course he gets lost. As he’s sitting on some steps, tired and forlorn, a nearby clock chimes midnight, at which point, a 1920 Peugeot Landaulet, full of carousers, pulls up and pulls him in. They take him to a party where he meets a woman named Zelda (Alison Pill) and her husband Scott (Tom Hiddleston, Loki from “Thor”). Their last name? Fitzgerald. He points at them. “Huh, Same as...” They seem confused by this. They also seem very 1920s. And the guy on the piano singing the Cole Porter song (Yves Heck) sure looks a lot like Cole Porter.
It’s not until they go to another bar and meet Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) that ... It’s less the other shoe dropping than the jaw dropping. It’s giving in to the fantasy, which Gil does when he asks Hemingway to read his manuscript. This Hemingway is a fully formed version who talks as Hemingway writes. When Gil praises his book—most likely “In Our Time”—Hemingway responds, “It was a good book because it was an honest book, and that's what war does to men. And there's nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully. And then it's not only noble but brave.” Hemingway talks moveable feasts and Fitzgerald calls Gil “old chap,” as if he were Gatsby, which not only makes sense—since, you could argue, all of this is in Gil’s head, so he’s not dealing with the real Hemingway and Fitzgerald but his versions of them—but it’s fun, too.
Hemingway refuses to read Gil’s manuscript, claiming he already hates it—if it’s bad and untrue, he says, he’ll hate it; and if it’s good he’ll be jealous and hate it even more—but he promises to set him up with his mentor, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who will read it with a clear mind and heart. When Gil arrives there the next night, Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) is showing off the latest painting of his mistress, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), whom Gil falls for.
Everyone knows I love me some Cotillard, but her scenes, and Gil’s romance with her, actually slow the movie down. The greater romance—for both Gil and Woody—is with art and literature and 1920s Paris. Those are the scenes that made the movie for me. Offering Zelda Fitzgerald a valium. Running into Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), Man Ray (Tom Cordier) and Salvador Dali (a hilarious, scene-stealing Adrien Brody) at a local pub. Pitching Buñuel an idea for a later Buñuel film—“The Exterminating Angel” from 1960—and leaving Buñuel as perplexed as a film student forced to study Buñuel. “What do you mean no one leaves the room?” he says. “Why?”
The more immersed Gil becomes in 1920s Paris, the more estranged he becomes from Inez, who winds up in the arms of Paul. There’s a great scene in modern-day Paris where Paul bores everyone with his views of a Picasso painting—the same Picasso painting we saw at Gertrude Stein’s—and Gil corrects him as thoroughly as Marshall McLuhan corrects the pedantic fucker in “Annie Hall.” Again: fun.
Fun ... but light. Adriana, it turns out, loves La Belle Époque as much as Gil loves the 1920s, and she and Gil, wah lah!, wind up back there, where they run into Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), and Gauguin and Degas (Olivier Rabourdin and François Rostain), who wax nostalgic for the Renaissance. A light goes on for Gil. No one is happy in their time. Most eras look great past their time. Thus Gil returns to 2010, for good now, breaks it off with Inez—Hemingway makes him realize she’s having an affair—and walks the streets, until, at midnight, he meets the usual unattached beautiful French girl (Léa Seydoux), and they take a walk together in the rain. The End.
It’s a nice fairy-tale ending. I liked it ... enough. It’s the movie’s lesson that feels less-than-satisfying to me.
Obviously a dramatist can’t leave his protagonist buried in a nostalgic past. At the same time, not all eras are created equally. I loved this version of 1920s Paris—who wouldn’t?—but, more, I loved the idea of traveling to a place where art and literature matter. Where it’s discussed, seriously and interestingly, all the time. In my own time, I just don’t see it or feel it. The artistic enclaves I’ve encountered tend to be full of the Pauls of the world, while the wider world, obsessed with wealth, power and technology, could give a shit. It’s harder and harder, in the digital age, to make a living as a writer, or photographer, or graphic designer. Even Philip Roth admits he doesn’t read novels anymore.
So I didn’t quite buy the lesson in the end. Even so: Thank you, Woody, for reminding me why I fell in love with literature in the first place. And why I fell in love with you.