Woody Allen’s best film in years sees the New York-born writer-director create a cinematic love letter to Paris with Owen Wilson doing his best Woody impression.
Woody Allen’s love letter to Paris is not the first cinematic incarnation of that cherished piece of prose, and it surely won’t be the last. But as an American “tourist” lavishing rose-tinted (and golden hued) praise on the mid-19th century neo-classical stone buildings and labyrinthine cobbled streets of Paris’ various arrondissements, Midnight In Paris may well be the best. The film is like a great big hug enveloping everything from the Place de la Concorde to Montmartre, The Palace of Versailles, Sacre-Coeur, and Champs-Elysees. Indeed, Allen begins the film with a protracted montage set against the music of jazz musician Sidney Bechet. It sees the Manhattan-director’s camera move around the city capturing its grand architecture and the people that inhabit it like a hundred live-action postcards ready to send home. Allen is telling us there’s something special about this place, and we are about to find out why.
Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, an easily distracted American writer vacationing in Paris with his fiancée’s parents. Partner Inez (Rachel McAdams) throws scorn on Gil’s romanticised view of the city as he tries to use the holiday as inspiration for a novel he is struggling to finish. After taking an evening stroll he is picked up by an antique car and finds himself transported back to the 1920s. He encounters his idols such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway who encourages him to take his unfinished novel to the renowned American writer Gertrude Stein. Subsequently, at midnight on each of the following evenings, Gil finds himself in the golden era of the 1920s, inhabited by the great artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians he adores and draws influence from in his work and his life. It is here that he begins to fall in love with Pablo Picasso’s muse Adriana (Marion Cotillard). These nightly jaunts create suspicion in Inez’s father who has a private detective follow his future son-in-law, while Gil and Inez’s relationship becomes more and more insufferable.
“Midnight In Paris is the affectionate creation of a dreamer who desperately wants to meet his own influential icons.”
On meeting Ernest Hemingway, Gil tells him his novel is about a nostalgia shop. This is fitting for Midnight In Paris which sees writer-director Allen at his most wistful. Crucially, however, the film’s sentimentality never becomes overbearing, with Allen displaying a genuine and heartfelt thirst for some of his own artistic heroes as envisaged through Owen Wilson’s Gil. From Hemingway to Picasso to the likes of T.S Elliott, Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel, and even Edgar Degas, Midnight In Paris is the affectionate creation of a dreamer who desperately wants to meet his own influential icons. It is a wonderful conceit imbued with a longing but considered approach by Allen. He beautifully uses it as a time-travelling adventure story as well as philosophical forum for discussion on literature, art, historical relevance, love, sexuality, and identity that brilliantly brings us back to the present.
What holds Midnight In Paris back from being regarded alongside Allen’s greatest achievements – Manhattan, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo – comes down to his fictional characters. Rachel McAdam’s Inez is far too obnoxious making you wonder why mild-mannered Gil ever fell in love with her. Despite her obvious beauty, Gil doesn’t appear the type to put up with her constant belittling or parent’s who consider him a communist. And while Owen Wilson does a great impression of Woody Allen circa 1980, you know who is pulling the strings. It takes something away from the authenticity of Gil, despite him being an otherwise intriguing character who is trying to find direction in mid-life.
“It is elegantly photographed as if everyone, whether inside or out, is lit by the glow of a roaring rustic fireplace”
Yet, Midnight In Paris is the best work Woody Allen has done in a long while. He bares his soul through the real life men and women he idolises in a film that smartly exudes sentimentalism without the schmaltz. It is elegantly photographed as if everyone, whether inside or out, is lit by the glow of a roaring rustic fireplace, jauntily scored by another run out of the Woody Allen Jazz Collection, and acted with the sort of vigour you expect when actors get the chance to work with Allen’s verbose dialogue. Stand outs come from the small parts – Adrien Brody playing Salvador Dali and Michael Sheen as Inez’s pseudo-intellectual friend Paul, obviously have a lot of fun. The ever-reliable Kathy Bates plays Gertrude Stein and Marion Cotillade is enchanting as Gil’s 1920’s love interest.
But Paris is the star of show, and while Allen rejoices in bringing such famous figures as Picasso and Ernest Hemingway to life, the heart of the film is the city. For these ninety minutes at least, the New York-born writer-director and maker of so many loving portraits of his home town, has found a second love. A love he recreates with beauty, humour, and a sense of hope.