Wednesday, July 13, 2011

minuit à paris

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is just ...  so ... good. If you've never been to Paris, or studied art, or read about the Lost Generation or La Belle Époque, it will still be a joy to watch. But if you have ... how much more fun.

Hollywood screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) is on a sojourn in Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), as a sort of last gasp before they get married. It is immediately clear that Gil loves Paris and is hoping that this trip will convince Inez to move there with him, and enable him to finally give up screenwriting and concentrate on writing his novel. It is also clear from the first moment we see Inez, who couldn't be more bored as they stand on Giverny's Bridge aux Nymphéas, that she not only could care less that she is caught in a moment of beauty, in a living painting by Monet, but that she and Gil are beyond incompatible.

Adriana and Gil stroll through 1920s Paris after midnight
Allen begins Midnight in Paris with his signature jazz music and a montage of Paris, from morning until midnight. The audience can get its bearings, becoming tourists like Gil and Inez, as the camera shows multiple shots of the Eiffel Tower, Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Louvre and other landmarks. It is an opening reminiscent of how he started Manhattan, with beautiful black and white shots of New York. It's a short-form love letter to the City of Light, the rest of the film a long-form one. What's especially nice is that there are no subtitles in the movie. The viewer must use their high school or college or traveler's French or just be at sea as to what people around him are saying as Gil is at times.

Gil is a glass half-full type of guy, and although he feels unease while his pushy girlfriend dotes on a pedantic bore (Michael Sheen) and her parents obviously dislike and insult him, he still doesn't want to see that not only is she not right for him, but just not a nice person. He blames all his restlessness on himself and one evening gets tipsy enough to finally refuse to be dragged along with her to do something he doesn't want to do. He gets lost wandering the winding streets of Paris and as the the clocks chime midnight a classic sedan, much like Cinderella's pumpkin coach, pulls up and a bunch of partying folks whisk him away for a ride. He's too sloshed and lost to argue, and the next thing he knows they're not hel[ing him find his hotel but have taken him to a party with Cole Porter playing the piano and singing "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love," and Zelda Fitzgerald (Allison Pill) flirting with him and introducing him to her husband Scott (Tom Hiddleston).

At first in shock, Gil can't believe that his dreams of going back to Paris when he believes it was really exciting, the 1920s, could be coming true — until he meets one of his heroes, Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). He soon finds himself talking books with one of his idols. Hemingway tells him he won't read his novel, but he'll show it to his friend Gertrude Stein (a perfectly cast Kathy Bates). Gil runs to get his manuscript, but finds the spell has worn off and returns to his hotel room. Luckily for him, the charm works again the next night and he is able to return, where he meets not only Stein, but Pablo Picasso and the beautiful and lost soul Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who is Picasso's current mistress.

Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí, "Rhinoceros!"
Allen has a blast introducing Gil to one icon after another. One of the best and funniest cameos in the film is Adrian Brody as a pitch-perfect Salvador Dalí. But also on hand are Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, T.S. Eliot, Josephine Baker and many more wonderful surprises. Midnight in Paris taps into the desire that everyone feels as they read about a time past and wonder what it would be like to visit. What would your chosen place be? Paris in the '20s like Gil? Or the Florence during the late 1500s? New York in the '50s at the Cedar Tavern? Midnight in Paris asks what if you really could, and, even more, what if you chose to stay there? Gil tries to tell Inez what he is experiencing even take her along for the ride, but she won't listen.

Owen Wilson, always an appealing actor, gives his best performance yet as Gil. He is one of the few actors who has been able to perform a lead character in a Woody Allen film and not seem as if he was mimicking Woody Allen. There are some typical Allen throwaway jokes — complaints about pseudo-intellectuals and the high culture/low culture debate. Inez's Ugly American parents are probably the ugliest Allen or any film has ever depicted, but somehow it all stays funny. Barbed at times, but still funny.

Another one of the reasons so much of the film works is that there are still many buildings that still evoke a past era in a city as old and charming as Paris. It must have ben easy for allen, sitting in some 19th century beautiful old building to dream up some scenes from the city's past. The film, Allen's 41st, is the first he has filmed entirely in Paris, and also using the digital intermediate process. The theater where we saw the movie had digital projection and the film was crisp and beautiful to look at.

It is hard to leave the theater after Midnight in Paris and not start checking flight deals to France, or try to dig up the book Kiki's Paris from my art book collection. Bon travail, M. Woody. Merci.
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