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For Your Consideration: 'Midnight in Paris'

Woody Allen's new film, Midnight in Paris, is enjoyable in the way that most of his films are: the vintage jazz, the beautiful cityscapes, the neurotic and dysfunctional relationships, the mumbling dialogue. A sort of remake of Manhattan, starring Paris instead of New York, it is a feast for the eyes from the opening montage, a series of glamor shots of the French capital in all times of day and varying degrees of rain (luscious cinematography by Darius Khondji). It is also, to a degree that is shocking even for Allen (the closest parallel is The Purple Rose of Cairo), an escapist fantasy, a condemnation of golden age nostalgia that is itself golden age nostalgia. Owen Wilson, standing in as a sort of surfer-dude Allen substitute as Gil Pender (Jeff Daniels also played a character named Gil in Purple Rose), is a hack screenwriter with dreams of becoming a serious novelist, on a trip to Paris with his fiancee (a gratingly emasculating Rachel McAdams) and her parents (TV actors Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy, just recognizable enough). Gil's romanticizing of Lost Generation Paris leads him into a world where dreams of the past can come true, as he rubs shoulders with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and many other artistic figures of the 1920s, through a conceit that I will try not to reveal.

As Allen spoke about in an interview with Le Figaro, the movie essentially rights a wrong in the writer-director's own life, when he spent several months in Paris in the 1960s, doing a rewrite of the script for What's New Pussycat?. Allen contemplated staying in Paris, did not, and lived with the regret, the situation that Gil faces but, to the contrary, he decides to stay in Paris. The irritating problem with the film is that even the present-day version of Paris where Wilson spends his days is not real. The Paris of Allen's film is an American tourist Paris, all Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, and the Moulin Rouge. This is the Paris of museums, fancy hotel dinners, all the favorite American spots (even the usual side trips to Giverny, Versailles, Mont St. Michel). In a way, this is fitting because Allen's dream is to recreate the fake Paris of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, a place where American writers hang out with other American writers and everyone speaks English. Hemingway's book is a fun read, and he knew the city very well, but his Anglocentric experience stands out when you have read French accounts of the same period, like Louis Aragon's Paysan de Paris and Guillaume Apollinaire's Le flâneur des deux rives (see my ongoing Paris Reading Project for more suggestions).

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Allen's film opened the Cannes Film Festival this past May, and critics in France, where Allen is generally beloved (as are other public figures criticized in the U.S. for sexual transgressions), were surprisingly uncritical, but that may be because most Parisians assume that all Americans have this fantasy view of their city. A smart review by Didier Péron and Philippe Azoury in Libération, however, nails the problem on the head (my translation):
Robert Guédiguian wondered what Allen thinks of when he looks at our beautiful country: "Does he think of the French working poor? The French unemployed?" One wants to respond that nothing has really changed after all, Paris today is getting the same postcard treatment as Manhattan in 1980. You will not see the Goutte-d'or here [the neighborhood in the 18th arrondissement], and even less the 9-3 [the northern suburbs of Seine-Saint-Denis], but do our friends, the riff-raff, really need a good clarinet lick? Let's get serious, the subject of Midnight in Paris is not Paris and its geographic, social, or even less human reality. The City of Lights here is the territory of purely imagined dream, a sort of cave of time gone by that he examines as a nostalgic spelunker.
The saddest part of the failure of Midnight in Paris is that it could have been a much smarter, much better film. Paris is, of course, a magical city, the sort of place where one could catch a vintage cab ride back into the past, a place where the haunts of former literary legends are now laundromats, a place that has so much artistic vitality that it has erased more history than many other cities ever had. Some of the most vivid portraits of the city, like Aragon's or Jacques Yonnet's Rue des Maléfices: Chronique secrète d'une ville, which paints the city as the repository of mysterious, sometimes evil forces, and going back to the Middle Ages, show this side of the city. All of that history, however, is missing, in both Allen and Hemingway's accounts, because they are not Francophone. The signature scene in the movie, in one way, is one of Gil's few encounters with French people in the street: he tries to ask directions, but the couple wave him away because he does not speak French.

That being said, there is much to enjoy, beginning with the performances of so many actors in bit parts, playing historical personages: Yves Heck as a suave Cole Porter, Alison Pill as a fizzy, zany Zelda Fitzgerald, Tom Hiddleston as an urbane, trusting F. Scott Fitzgerald, the beautiful Rwandan-born Sonia Rolland as Josephine Baker. Corey Stoll is charmingly cartoonish as a caricature of Ernest Hemingway, picking fights and speaking in deadpan, clipped sentences parodied from his books. Carla Bruni, the First Lady of France, has a turn as a tour guide in the Musée Rodin, a participation that was fraught with scandal, most of which Allen has denied elsewhere. Adrien Brody is a dead ringer for Salvador Dalí -- especially when he bugs out his eyes -- in a rather ridiculous encounter with Gil, part of a series of interactions with the surrealists, including Man Ray and Luis Buñuel. Kathy Bates has a lot of fun as Gertrude Stein, although little about her performance really seemed to evoke the Stein one knows from her writing.

Much of the reason why Gil so wants to get away from his present is his fiancee's infatuation with an old flame, Paul, now a college professor who turns up in Paris giving a lecture at the Sorbonne. Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, and a hilarious set of appearances as the insufferable prig Wesley in 30 Rock) plays this role to the hilt, a smug casse-pieds who is a parody of all of the pseudo-intellectual poseurs Allen has ever skewered, boring and self-important, rasoir all the way up to la barbe. Sadly, Sheen does not have much to play with, given the general prosaic quality of this script: if you don't believe me, see the master at work in the Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall ("What I wouldn't give for a large sock!") or the Alan Alda send-up in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Of course, is Gil any better in his wild fantasies? In the fantasy he is instantly befriended by Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein adores his book. In a sense, the two women who incarnate Gil's transparent wish fulfillment are just as flimsy and self-serving: Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Inception, Un long dimanche de fiançailles) is wasted as a smiling, wispy sylph from the 1920s, who herself longs for an earlier era, and Léa Seydoux, the beautiful princess of French movie business royalty, is an even less substantial nostalgia stand salesgirl. Both are gorgeous, alluring ciphers, but ciphers nonetheless.

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