In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen focuses (after location-shooting experiments in England and Spain) on that one place abroad that’s most magical to Americans, not to mention most people. It’s also a place he himself reveres and by reports often visits for restorative escapes from Manhattan life. As his stand-in protagonist in this new movie Allen has chosen the shambling, casually handsome Owen Wilson. This is important because Wilson is a loose-limbed popular comedy star, as blond and WASP-American as apple pie, and miles from the image of the nervous, edgy little smart Jewish guy. He can fit in with the bragadoccio of the Twenties, the likes of Hemingway, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, legends whom the movie’s fanciful plot puts him in celluloid contact with. He must defer to them. They’re beyond famous, and his character is only a Hollywood screenwriter and a wannabe novelist. But he’s got a certain laid-back panache. Wilson works just fine in this movie. His solid presence anchors the otherwise fragile framework of the story.
Paris is perennially magical to Americans, but the Twenties was the time when a whole generation of American artists and writers actually lived and worked there. That was when Gertrude Stein held court for expatriate Yanks and Hemingway came and went to the “moveable feast,” getting advice from Gertrude and hanging out with Cocteau, Picasso, Dalí, Bunuel, and other artists, writers, theater people, ballet impressarios and syncophants. Matisse was competing with Picasso. Man Ray, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald partied all night. Mon dieu, what a moment to be in the City of Light!
Woody Allen must have not just Paris but that special moment on the screen, and he creates a plot to make that possible. In the movie, Owen Wilson slips into a time warp every midnight, escaping from the posh hotel that houses his bitchy fiancée, her snotty, right-wing dad, and a tiresome pedant who monopolizes his fiancée, bores everybody, and lectures tour guides — one of them played by Sarkozy’s wife Carla Bruni. Woody risks boring us himself by focusing so much on picture postcard views of the city, with a long sequence of them opening the movie. When does homage morph into cliché or lecture? That is the question. Anyway, Wilson’s magic pursuit becomes both compulsive and engrossing. The visits with Twenties personalities are fun, even though the accuracy of the imitations varies. Going to the same location every night at the witching hour, Wilson’s picked up in a chauffeured car and whisked away to places to meet the cream of ex-pat Twenties Paris – and soon to woo an enchanting young woman, Marion Cotillard. She is the mistress of Picasso and before that was with Modigliani. But Picasso can’t be trusted with women, and now Marion is drawn to Owen, and vice versa.
It turns out Marion is drawn to the past too – and she and Owen drop into a Russian doll time-warp-within-time-warp, slipping from the Flapper era into the Belle Époque and visiting the Moulin Rouge to meet Toulouse Lautrec, Monet, and Manet. Monet and Manet aren’t happy to be in the Belle Époque, the Parisian’s logical idea of the best of times. They want to go back to the Renaissance! This discontent with the present has no end, and eventually Wilson’s character realizes it’s futile. He can’t go anywhere with Marion, because they’re from different times.
This is fun, and we catch the addiction to escape to a better time that captures Wilson. It’s just an amplification of his belief that Paris in the present is so wonderful he ought to stay there to finish his novel (about a man who sells camp nostalgia pieces in LA) and leave his Hollywood job.
All this reminded me of an old LP record from the Fifties called “This Is Paris” –- the more so because I saw Midnight in Paris in Paris, a week after it opened the Cannes Festival of May 2011, out of competition, and opened in Paris cinemas simultaneously —- 16 of them! – with people lining up down the block to see the movie every night. On the old LP, a French cultural icon of the time speaks of an American whose fantasy of the city was “to read Madame Bovary while eating a croissant in the shadow of Notre Dame.” This, he declares, “was a wise and pleasant dream….” Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is almost as naïve and clichéd as that simple, if “wise and pleasant” dream, and just as sweet.
Perhaps a mere recreation of this kind of fantasy would be enough for a movie, if it were done with sufficient purity and honesty. But Midnight in Paris also considers, if only lightly, the issue of creativity and imagination, the artist’s need to escape and dream, and cinema’s dangerously tempting ability to devise fantasies and recreate other places and times. Other places and times indeed are always fantasies, because we can only truly experience the present.
Woody Allen’s making a movie set in Paris is also a loaded action. His American reputation has waned but he has seemed to remain a solid icon in France, a country crazy about cinema and more faithful to its film idols than we are as well as quirky in its American preferences – the famous case in point being its passion for the films of Jerry Lewis. We Americans may think of Woody more and more as a great director of the Seventies who just couldn’t stop making movies. He’s said he has to grind them out to ward off depression. Sometimes recently the despair has crept into them, in Whatever Works, for instance, which is dominated by meanness and negativity. But Woody gets good reviews and great promotion in France. He got them for Midnight in Paris. However, to the surprise of some Americans at Cannes, he got them in America too when his film opened there a week later.
This is because in this movie Woody has caught the magic of another place and another time in ways that are charming – and glossy. Midnight in Paris is not a great movie. It has barely any of the wit and only a little of the intelligence the man is capable of. It has good moments, though. Marion Cotillard always brings magic to the screen, and she is the perfect Twenties enchantress. Hemingway giving advice on courage, writing, and women will bring smiles. Adrian Brody’s brief but dashing sendoff of Salvador Dalí is great fun. Owen Wiilson’s old-shoe ease in his unusually relaxed and hopeful version of the Woody-Allen-surrogate protagonist makes him easy to identify with.
His character wises up and stops pursuing the phantasm of Mlle. Cotillard, in favor of a real, 21st-century French girl, Léa Seydoux (though movie princess is the stuff of dreams too). He has learned a lesson. Or has he? The solution he finds is as much a thing of movie fantasy as his midnight escapes into the past. But maybe that’s the movie’s message: movies can only show us dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams.
I saw Minuit à Paris at the UGC Odéon, 24, bd Saint-Germain in Paris Sunday May 22, 2011.
DIRECTOR: WOODY ALLEN
STARS: OWEN WILSON, MARION COTILLARD, RACHEL MCADAMS
RUNTIME: 100 MIN