23 June 2011

Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’

Joyride: Gil (Wilson) with the Fitzgeralds (Hiddleston and Pill)

Woody Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris, finds him on familiar, perhaps even safe, ground — but because that ground is Parisian, and because Allen has never filmed there before, there’s perhaps more than usual interest attached to the picture. Or anyway, I forced myself to set aside, at least for now, the solemn oath I’d made never to see another of his movies. Give him credit for this much, anyway: if Midnight means the launch of a new, Parisian chapter in his career, his French movies will be watchable, at least, unlike all of his London and so many of his New York pictures.

Midnight suggests that Allen set out by asking himself first to identify what Paris means to him.* The answers were clichés and received ideas; for Allen as for most travelers, it’s impossible to arrive in Paris as a blank slate. But then he goes further, attempting to say something about the consequences of coming to a place about which one knows so much already. For example, what effect will prior associations have on an artist’s work?

In this case, it’s a fusion of several prior works: I spot elements of the short story “The Kugelmass Episode” and of the films Zelig, Purple Rose of Cairo, and even a little Play It Again, Sam. Our protagonist, a writer named Gil Pender, is mystically transported from his unsatisfying present into a thrilling alternate reality. Here, it’s Jazz Age Paris, crowded with some of the starriest names in Western culture: the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Stein, Picasso, and so on.

Time-traveler: Owen Wilson as Gil

This is perhaps ideal for a humorist who in a very long career has devoted the bulk of his punch lines to name-dropping and to effete cultural references: here, Allen can surrender to both at once. What’s surprising is how dull his zingers are, how little he has to say about any of the luminaries he revives onscreen, and how unspecific the jokes are. Is he talking down to his audience? Or has he lost the knack?

Only a few of the cultural references reveal any substantial knowledge of their subjects, but it’s a pleasure when, for example, Ernest Hemingway’s conversation sounds like a parody of Hemingway’s prose, or when Gil suggests an idea for a movie to Luis Buñuel — and that idea just happens to be the plot of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. “I don’t get it,” Buñuel (Adrien de Van) deadpans.

Otherwise, a lot of the script amounts to wasted opportunities to score smarter laughs, especially in the case of the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston, excellent as Scott, and Allison Pill, passable as Zelda), Picasso (a strong resemblance but lifeless performance from Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates seems to have been cast because she fit the costume). The best of the historical impersonations comes, surprisingly, from Adrien Brody, whose cameo as Salvador Dalì is delicately calibrated for maximum effect, and very funny to boot.

What’s wrong with the present day: Gil with his awful fiancée, Inez (McAdams), the intellectual show-off Paul (Sheen), and bystander Carol (Nina Arianda).

At least it’s easy to understand why Gil wants to escape from the present: his wealthy fiancée (Rachel McAdams) is an odious portmanteau of all the worst qualities of Allen’s least pleasant female characters, almost to the point of misogyny, and of course she’s falling for a know-it-all academic (expertly played by Michael Sheen) who’s an even less sympathetic version of Michael Murphy’s character in Manhattan.

The movie might have been more interesting if McAdams’ character and her circle were more subtle in their awfulness — subtlety is, after all, one of the prime virtues expounded upon by Gertrude Stein during the movie — and again I can’t tell whether Allen thinks we won’t understand him if he understates, or if he’s forgotten how to do it.

As Gil, Owen Wilson manages the astonishing feat of making Allen’s dialogue sound almost natural, without ever seeming to imitate Allen himself. I didn’t buy him as a budding literary talent and didn’t really understand why Hemingway would do so (having, like me, read nothing of Gil’s work), but that’s a minor matter here, and Wilson communicates a lovely mix of astonishment and excitement throughout his time-traveling scenes.

Marion Cotillard looks pretty and speaks good English as Adriana, Gil’s Jazz Era love interest, but she isn’t given much to do, to tell the truth; only toward the end of the movie, when she makes clear just how much Adriana admires the Belle Epoque, does she come to life.

Chez Maxim: Wilson and Cotillard

What goes entirely unspoken, and evidently unconsidered, here is the question of historical context. That’s curious, since (for example) Adriana’s nostalgia for the 1890s would make good sense in a young woman who lived through the privations of World War I in France. That said, such an experience might plausibly prompt a character to yearn for an era even earlier than the Belle Epoque, just as Gil yearns for the long-ago 1920s — but perhaps Allen found Maxim’s and the Moulin Rouge irresistible.

While watching, I was inevitably prompted to recall my own expectations of Paris, 34 years after my first visit and seven after I first made up my mind to move there. I know the city so well now that there isn’t a single location in Midnight that I didn’t recognize from personal experience, I’m quite proud to say, but of course that wasn’t always the case. And the truth is that, on that first visit, my notions of Paris were barely formed, and mostly ignorant.

What resonated perhaps even more strongly was the recollection that Allen’s movies informed my expectations of New York City, just as the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway do for Gil: I fully expected that everybody in this town would speak as cleverly (and as artificially) as Woody Allen’s characters do, and surely real New Yorkers would flit like Kunstfeen from one cultural spectacle to the next. Would I have come here had not those fantasies already been planted in my mind?

I wish that he still made movies that were as meaningful to me as those early ones still are. As I walked out of the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and gazed up at the New York sky, I heard Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in my mind’s ear — and that’s entirely to Woody Allen’s credit. And I wonder, as I do every time I see one of his newer movies, whether it’s asking too much, to want more — and better — from him.

Though she’s top-billed in the movie’s posters, French First Lady Carla Bruni Sarkozy appears only in a couple of scenes, as a guide from the Rodin Museum.

*NOTE: American readers may not know that Allen is hugely popular in France — and fluent in French.


Girl From Texas said...

A good critique, if harsh. I did feel while watching the movie that this was "Manhattan" all over again, only situated in Paris. Perhaps Woody is reiterating past film successes, in an attempt to overcome recent cinematic failures? While the famous characters were mostly superficial, if humorously drawn caricatures, I did like the attention to visual details - one scene where Kathy Bates was sitting underneath a famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, and posed in the same manner, created a nice recursive visual effect. The painting come to life. The Hemingway costume and make-up were taken from one of my favorite paintings of him. What I think is most interesting about Owen Wilson as an actor is how he has grown in his craft. He managed to stay his own self-effacing nebbish-y self while channeling Woody as well. It was like he was possessed. Nice job for a cute boy from Dallas.(The Wilson brothers at one pt attended St Mark's and were friends with a college buddy of mine's husband .)

Anonymous said...

Not to sound jaded, but in the years since reading Paris Au Mois d'Aout by Rene Fallet, a novel dedicated to Jean-Louis Trintignant, I've felt that most writers and directors who choose Paris as a setting tell essentially the same story over and over. (Having flings, falling in and out of love, and back in love, learning about ourselves, etc.) It does get rather predictable. A director who really had something to say would take up the matters of riots, workers' strikes, et al.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

I'm still busy catching up with what writers said about Paris 150 years ago -- but I do see a fair number of current movies, especially French ones, and I can certainly understand your point of view, Rick, jaded or not. If it's true that there are only 37 possible plots (or whatever the figure somebody calculated), there may be even fewer when it comes to Paris. But originality of style does count for a lot -- I hope.