(this review of Midnight in Paris appeared in the Australian Jewish News in October 2011)
Woody Allen’s newest film Midnight in Paris is likely to delight his fans, and may very well find a new audience of those seeking pure romantic fantasy. At age 76, Allen works at the pace of someone half his age, continuing to write and direct a new movie each year. He also has just opened a one act play on Broadway, part of the Relatively Speaking threesome set directed by John Turturro.
“Midnight in Paris” continues Allen’s setting his films in Europe, far from his native New York. It takes place in modern-day Paris, the city of romantic dreams, a place tailor-made for Allen’s unique blend of whimsy, light comedy and romantic misadventure.
The film follows a poorly matched couple – Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) and his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams), who are accompanying her parents there on business. Experienced viewers of Woody Allen’s films know that ether is almost always an Allen “stand-in”, the character who provides a narrative thread for the story. This role – played by Wilson – may be the closest Wilson gets to playing “Jewish”; he does a good “take” on the Allen verbal loquaciousness and distracted angst.
While successful, Gil regards himself as a hack writer and longs for the literary life. (He has, like almost all screenwriters, a partially completed but troubled major novel partly written.) This provides the jumping off point for the film’s central themes.
Gil and Inez meet up with Inez’s former boyfriend, Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife Carol. Sheen gleefully plays the stock standard Woody Allen type of the uninformed but determined pseudo-intellectual (remember the movie queue scene in “Annie Hall”), whose pronouncements about art irritate Gil enormously. As Gil wanders off on his own, he is magically transported back to Paris in the 1920s. No flashing lights or special effects take place, just a vintage car that picks Gil up on a deserted Paris streetcorner as the clock strikes midnight – and when he alights almost 90 years have vanished.
The film’s turn to pure fantasy is simple and yet totally delightful. This is where Gil, director Woody Allen and we the audience all have fun in playing “recognise the iconic literary and artistic figures”. We are first introduced to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and later Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Djuna Barnes, Man Ray, Luis Bunuel, T.S. Eliot, Henri Matisse and Gertrude Stein’s brother Leo.
The cast of character greats is too large to give each one more than just a passing one-dimensional sketch. But we are treated to two in greater detail: an improbably warmly receptive Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) – whose book of memoirs of Paris in the 20s “A Moveable Feast” surely provided much of the inspiration for this film – and Gertrude Stein. Stein is played by Kathy Bates in what may become the most memorable screen portrayal of this literary figure. Stein was from an Oakland California Jewish family and ran great literary and artistic salons in Paris, along with her partner Alice B. Toklas.
Gil entrusts his half-finished novel to Stein for review; her comments are direct, perceptive, revealing and – for Gil – life-changing.
Unfortunately Allen allows his enthusiasm for historical Paris to muddy the plot and introduces Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the mistress of Picasso and with whom Gil ventures even further back to Paris of the lat nineteenth century. (Once on to a good thing, Allen clearly could not let go.)
One of the perpetual delights of Woody Allen’s films is that he is kind to his characters, and “Midnight in Paris” is no exception, ending on a hopeful note for the somewhat dazed and confused Gil. Although box office returns are only sometimes related to a film’s artistic merit, “Midnight in Paris” has been very popular since its North American release in late May (and is still playing in US cinemas). It appears to have become Woody Allen’s most financially successful film, at least without inflation-adjustments (“Annie Hall” probably still hold the “adjusted” record gross).
Keen observers will catch Carla Bruni (the glamorous wife of the current French President) playing a museum guide. Also pay attention to the walls in Gertrude Stein’s flat: as a great collector of Pablo Picasso, we glimpse Picasso’s very modernist rendering of his “Portrait of Gertrude Stein”. These small touches add up to create, while not a masterpiece (it’s too lightweight for that) certainly the finest literary film in a long time.
Interested in more about Gertrude Stein? The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently closed an exhibition of works which she and her brother Leo had collected. The Picasso portrait of Gertrude Stein – normally resident at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City – appeared in the exhibition, and also appears below.