Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen’s Off-Key Love Song

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Roger Arpajou / Sony Pictures Classics / Everett Collection

Woody Allen loves Paris. He loves the rain and the statues, kiosks, Metro entrances. Most of all, he loves the rich history of a city whose inhabitants invented so many of the things he holds dear: romance (and cheating), and movies with subtitles, and sidewalk-café philosophizing, and the notion of blithe bohemian grandeur. And when a Woody Allen surrogate, like the writer Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), goes to Paris, what is his dream come true? Meeting other Americans.

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Midnight in Paris, which this evening opens the 64th Cannes Film Festival, is pure Woody Allen. Which is not to say great or even good Woody, but a distillation of the filmmaker’s passions and crotchets, and of his tendency to pass draconian judgment on characters the audience is not supposed to like. The movie opens with a rapturous visual montage of Paris, as Allen’s 1979 Manhattan did of his favorite New York City borough. And as in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which had its world premiere at the Festival three years ago, the writer-director brings some contemporary American tourists to a legendary European city and allows them to collide with amiable local stereotypes. There it was a bull-like painter (Javier Bardem) who fit all the personality traits, if not the artistic fecundity, of a modern Picasso. Here… well, wait two paragraphs for the inevitable spoilers.

Gil, a writer who’s grown restless piling up the money and credits as a Hollywood script doctor, has come to Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her conservative parents John (Kurt Fuller), in town on a business deal, and Helen (Mimi Kennedy). Ensconced at the posh Hotel Bristol, they hate the city, the rich food, the people; they suspect, on little evidence, that a Bristol maid has stolen Inez’s pearl earrings. Gil has his own problems. “Since I’ve been engaged to Inez I’ve been having little panic attacks,” he confides to a stranger, “which I’m told will subside once we’re married.” That’s not likely. Whatever aura brought Gil and Inez together has by now evaporated; not yet married, they seem like a sour middle-aged couple, she preferring the company of the oily, posturing, pedantic Paul (Michael Sheen), he ducking out of dinner dates because he wants to work on his novel.

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Allen pours an immense amount of odium on Inez: insulting him in front of her parents and her other friends, deriding his attempts at serious writing as evidence of a brain tumor. It’s all meant to win our sympathy for Gil’s trangression into fantasy — but, still, I felt sorry for McAdams, whose usually winning presence is ground into hostile chiché. Inez needn’t be a small-minded shrew; she’s one of those Americans who wants every foreign city to be exactly like their home town. I don’t share that feeling but I know people who do. In her girlhood in 1927 (the period in which much of this film is set), my mother came to Paris with her sisters and, she told me much later, was desolate that she couldn’t get a hamburger. Today, she’d have no trouble finding a Big Mac on the Champs Elysées.

As Gil flees a meal with his future in-laws to wander the streets of Paris, a clock strikes midnight and an old Duesenberg sedan pulls up — we are now entering SPOILER ALERT territory — to take him to a marvelous party. Scott Fitzgerald (Thor‘s Tom Hiddleton) and Zelda (Alison Pill) are his hosts; Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) is there, living up to Vladimir Nabokov’s cutting description of his obsessions as “bells, bulls and balls”; at the piano, Cole Porter is playing “Let’s Do It.” Gil has time-tripped into the Paris of the late 1920s, and in a trice he will meet Getrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Salvador Dali (an amusingly vivacious Adrien Brody), Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, the whole gang of novelists, painters and filmmakers who animated and defined their era. He also finds, and falls in love with, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a stage designer and artist’s model, currently in a turbulent affair with Picasso… unless il would perhaps be interested?

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So the first maddening half-hour is the horrid realism before the escape into fantasy: Dorothy in Kansas, Alice before her Wonderland tumble. Or Cecilia (Mia Farrow), the Depression-era waitress who enters a movie dreamland, and brings a character from one of those movies back to New Jersey with her, in Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo. In fanciful fiction, such a visit to a make-believe world is designed to clarify the protagonist’s view of his condition; and Gil will take advantage of the lessons he learned after midnight in Paris to find a real-life soulmate in the lovely person of an antique-shop clerk (Léa Seydoux).

Like Gil, Adriana is restless in her present: she wants to be part of la belle époque, and in a flashback-within-the-fantasy she and Gil are transported to Maxim’s and the Moulin Rouge to meet Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas. This spurs Gil’s climactic insight, which he acknowledges is a minor one, that certain folks think the past is always more glamorous — that, in Allen’s own phrase long ago, “Nothing ever gets better.” No one think his age is golden, even if posterity deems it so. As Randall Jarrell perceptively wrote: “The people who live in a Golden Age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.”

Fans of Woody Allen have long complained that his mature movies didn’t match “the early, funny ones,” as a character in the filmmaker’s 1980 Stardust Memories charges. Now he’s 75, and still assiduously making a movie a year, oblivious to the sliding of his repute. Will future generations say that this was Woody’s golden age? We’ll get back to you in 30 years on that one; but the immediate answer is no way — not on the basis of his latest dreamwork. Though Wilson proves an engaging and plausible mouthpiece for the Woody persona, and Cotillard imparts a grown-up woman’s charm to her role — and though, dammit, I love Paris as much as the filmmaker does — his Midnight strikes not sublime chimes but the clangor of snap judgments and frayed fantasy.