Cannes 2011 Review: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris

Editor’s Note: Our Cannes coverage kicks off hard and heavy here, so everyone welcome Simon Gallagher and forgive him his British spellings that slip by the editing process. Also, all Cannes reviews are best read with a glass of champagne.

Day one on the Croisette and we’re already opening with a name as big as Woody Allen. For the second year in a row, the director who never seems to tire of making films, and who can still occasionally make exceptional ones, has a film showing on the Croisette. Following last year’s inclusion of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, the 64th Cannes festival opened this morning with the New Yorker’s latest – Midnight in Paris – a screening that for me came laced with both excitement, and an underwhelming sense that I was about to see essentially the same Woody Allen film I’ve been watching for the past decade or so. It’s not that I don’t enjoy seeing Allen muse on the nature of love and relationships, or seeing him create a slightly grotesqued portrait of himself (this time taken on by Owen Wilson), I just think there is only so much enjoyment to be had when a filmmaker so obviously resists the urge to evolve through his art, no matter how good it is.

But I had no reason to be suspicious, as it seems that Allen has taken it upon himself to debunk the idea that he generally makes and remakes the same film, throwing a playful curve ball of a surprise that isn’t even hinted at in the pre-release trailers, and that was met with a cascading response in the cinema, among the great and the not-so-great of the world of film writing. It also revealed why the pre-release material has been so careful not to mention the character names of most of the stars (look at all the blank spaces on IMDB).

Be warned, there are some spoilers beneath, but it is a necessary evil, since those clever devils marketing Midnight in Paris have effectively released a trailer that says nothing of the real substance, or indeed events of the film…

Midnight in Paris is a film obsessed with and prefigured by the notion of nostalgia. Wilson’s Gil Pender – surprise, surprise a Hollywood script-writer facing a creative crisis – is a walking personification of what his fellow character Paul (the irresistibly pedantic “other man” played by Michael Sheen) disparagingly calls Golden Age Thinking. He has become disillusioned with writing the “wonderful, but forgettable” films that have made him successful and moderately rich, and wishes he had spent more time committing himself to real literature, valuing the 1920s we learn as a cultural zenith and the time in which he should have been born. His romanticized vision of life is also a near-personification for the ideas and ideals of Allen’s film canon, and there is something about the way the film explores how looking back can inform how we move forward, both in life and in creative endeavours that is as engaging and uplifting as the romantic elements of the plot.

Allen is of course something of a nostalgic: not always in terms of his explicit content (though there are certain films, like Radio Days that are far more overtly nostalgic), but certainly in the way he handles characters and themes. And even more specifically, he is a self-perpetuating nostalgic, reintroducing grand themes, character traits and filmic idiosyncrasies that have graced the majority of his works (hence the accusations that he is far from an innovator). Here, there is an obvious comment by Allen on his own filmic conventions – if there was a check-list for Things We Have Seen in Woody Allen Films, most of his modern films would fit the bill, and Midnight in Paris is no different. In it we have the typical relationship highs and lows, a wandering moral romantic compass, an ensemble cast, an Allenian protagonist, lashings of self-effacing humor and the merest hint of cynicism for how Hollywood works. These characteristics are as familiar as Allen’s thick rimmed glasses, and initially, as suspected, I thought the film was going to be nothing new – but the greatest strength of Midnight in Paris is that the writer/director brings in a charming narrative conceit to act as a new, engaging canvas for his familiar tropes and traits.

It is rather odd, and completely disarming to find Allen doing something different. But then, he isn’t really shaking up the game that much, as every established Allenian characteristic is still on screen, albeit shown through a filter that we haven’t seen him do before. The start of the film has us believe that we are about to see a typically insular Allen film about human relationships, and the dynamics between people in love (albeit with a grander background than usual), but a little way in, when we have met the usual suspect characters, and built up an idea of what is going to happen, the film takes a turn towards the fantastical, as Gil unwittingly stumbles on a time-portal of sorts that transports him back to the 1920s at the same time every night (midnight, quelle surprise!), if he is waiting in the same place on the Parisian streets. If you’re British, like me (and you’re probably not), you might be familiar with a TV show called Goodnight Sweetheart that starred Nicholas Lyndhurst as a modern man who could travel back to wartime Britain by walking down a road or something – anyway it’s that same idea.

Along the way, Gil meets all manner of significant artists and writers, including Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston respectively), who introduce him to their circle of friends, including Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and a muse of sorts called Adriana, who Gil becomes somewhat taken with, as he continues to meet the greatest names attached to artist revolution of 1920s Paris. The trick is a clever one, and there is initially an enormous amount of fun to be had in meeting the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Picasso and Salvador Dali, but by the end, it is unfortunately a case of the over-egged pudding. The perpetual stream of culturally significant characters – artists, musicians and writers – who Gil bumps into during his time-bending trips does lose a lot of the impact that the earlier revelations have, and I have to say there were some audible groans when yet another face was trotted out seemingly for the sake of it. But it is a minor concern, and one that at least shows that Allen is having some fun with his audience, which for a director who is perpetually accused of making films for himself, is a big deal and wonderful to see.

The film opens in the typically conventional manner of an Allen, especially one that so obviously states its intentions to form some kind of love-letter to a city. There is an extended (a little overly so, in fact) montage of Parisian scenes, exquisitely composed and beautifully shot, that is supposed to entice us to love the city as much as the director obviously does. The bombardment is a little relentless, but it’s charming enough, and in light of the twist in the tale, it serves its misdirecting purpose well.

That over-extended montage actually sheds light on another thing that Allen chooses to say with this film. If you watch the shots (which OWF editor Matt Holmes astutely commented on as Allen’s almost fruitless conscious attempt to find a romantic personal story to match the grandeur of the city), there aren’t many people involved who immediately catch the attention. And if this is Allen’s attempt to find a story to tell that matches the back-drop, and in light of some other later scenes I’ll mention in a moment, it looks like the director has mixed feelings about Parisians and French people in general. Rather than capturing a typically French story, or even one involving French people, Allen (ever obsessed with the idea of alienated foreigners) chooses instead to focus on an American story set in a hotel, when he can’t find what he is looking for on the authentic streets of the French capital.

This might also reflect why the script features a few barbed comments and sequences, with Kurt Fuller acting as the francophobic mouth-piece on two noticeable occasions. But then, through the time-traveling conceit, Allen is able to explore an other Paris, one which is far more romantic and magical, which features engaging characters, and relatable, intriguing stories. It’s almost as if the film, and the director specifically is saying that modern France is nothing in comparison with the Golden Age France of his imagined past, which would fit perfectly with the film’s overall mantra that no matter what the time or the circumstances, artists and “real people” are perpetually looking backwards enviously to what they see as a supposedly better time.

We all know going into a film like this that we aren’t going to be treated to another gritty city  portrait like Biutiful‘s, that exposes the dirty underbelly of a city (in that case Barcelona) that is so usually romanticized in film, and indeed the Paris on-screen is far more magic-realist than conventionally realist: Allen is clearly far more invested in furthering the mythos and the mystique of the city. Despite the usually wayward moral compass of his cinematic romances (and the ones he embarks on in real life), and his very liberated attitude to monogamous relationships on screen (everyone has it in them to cheat), Allen is an old-fashioned romantic, and his opinions on the magic of love are obviously very similar to how he feels about cities like Paris that have something unspeakably magic about them. And really, the romanticised version of Paris suits the fantastical element of the plot, so there is no real reason to complain that there is no sugegstion of the crime of dangerous sub-cultures that are as much part of capital city living as the tourist traps and the grand history.

The actors – as many as they are – are all very good, which is that other thing you would usually expect from a Woody Allen film: and I have to say that despite not immediately fitting the bill for me, Owen Wilson is a great lead, balancing the Allenian charm of his character with an excited energy that suits his situation. The two actresses who share the most screen-time with Wilson are equally good, even if Marion Cotillard is given a lot more favorable material to work with than Rachel McAdams, who is somewhat cast aside in the wake of the glamour of romance. Elsewhere, the film is all about enchanting cameos (extended in places), with Kathy Bates, and Corey Stoll offering excellent character performances, and the show almost being stolen on two occasions by Michael Sheen (who is deliciously smarmy) and Adrien Brody, who appears for about two minutes and steals the largest laughs. Allen will always get the best of his actors, and when they are as well-written and enchanting as most are here, and there is more of a limit on the amount of horribly off-putting characters (as there wasn’t in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger sadly), the performances visibly show the benefits.

If we do love Allen (and I do), it is usually because of his filmmaking style, and because of the many tricks and stylistic flourishes that we have seen in pretty much every film he has ever made, and to see them all celebrated here in such a successful manner is wonderful. If you read more reviews of Midnight in Paris in the coming days, you will probably see the writers say that this is Woody Allen’s best film in years, and though it is probably cliched to say it, I whole-heartedly agree. The film is far from an astute comment on romantic entanglement, or the reality of Paris, but it is a charming, engaging fairytale that rises above its occasional cliches (that can be forgiven as fitting with the nostalgic overtones), and soars on the back of some excellent performances, an accomplished, and funny script and most of all a director who knows exactly how to suck in his audience, and leave them feeling warmth in their hearts and a smile on their faces.

The most telling final analysis will be when Midnight in Paris opens to cinemas: but based on my experience of the film, I’d say it should gather a bigger following than some of its directors more recent offerings, and rightly so. Definitely one for the Good Woody Allen pile.

The Upside: Definitely one of Woody Allen’s better recent films: it is laugh-out-loud funny in places, incredibly charming and the fairytale element is as irresistible as walking through Paris in the rain. Mixed reviews seem to have become part of the furniture when it comes to the director’s films – I’d hazard a guess that such a response will be conspicuously absent this time around.

The Downside: The cumulative effect of seeing so many famous faces does get old, and the second revelation (I won’t spoil this one), feels entirely unnecessary, even if it does add a nice romantic conclusion to Cotillard’s character.

Born to the mean streets of Newcastle, England the same year that BMX Bandits was cruelly over-looked for the Best Film Oscar, Simon Gallagher's obsessive love of all things cinema blossomed during that one summer in which he watched Clueless every day for six weeks. This is not a joke. Eventually able to wean himself off that particular dirty habit, and encouraged by the revelation that was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, he then spent many years reviewing films on the underground scene, throwing away thousands of pounds on a Masters Degree in English in the process, before landing feet-first at the doors of British movie site, where you can catch his blend of rapier wit and morbid sardony on a daily basis. Simon is also a hopeless collector of film paraphenalia, and counts his complete Star Wars Mr. Potato Heads collection among his friends.

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