I have a certain cinematic fantasy, involving the 10th annual Cannes Film Festival, held from May 2-17 in 1957. In this fantasy, I trip down the Croisette, the warm South French breeze whipping at my cheeks, on my way to the debut screening of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.” I’ve just left a bustling but quaint sidewalk café, where I shared a glass of wine with André Bazin (already ill with leukemia, but as vibrant as ever) and his energetic young disciple François Truffaut, discussing the highlights of the festival slate, including the latest works by Federico Fellini, William Wyler, Grigori Kozintsev, Robert Bresson, Andrzej Wajda, Jules Dassin, Stanley Donen and Grigori Chukhrai. Bazin was certain that the jury, led by his close friend Jean Cocteau and including Michael Powell and George Stevens, would choose Wyler’s “Friendly Persuasion” for the Palme D’Or, while Truffaut favored Wajda’s bold, fresh visual style for the prize. Of course, a few hours later they both may feel differently, after the arrival of Bergman’s masterpiece.
Deep down, we all harbor such daydreams, an idealistic fancy of living in some bygone time inhabited by personal heroes. Traipsing at a royal ball at Versailles in the 17th century; discussing relativity with Einstein; grabbing a beer with Lou Gehrig. No matter what the exact details, the sentiment is the same: the present always pales in comparison to a past bronzed by our romantic tendencies and distanced by the passage of time.
No filmmaker understands this idea better than Woody Allen; indeed, for decades Allen’s movies have been the filmic embodiment of nostalgia, frequently to the point where the director skirts the edges of self-parody. “Midnight in Paris” certainly does Allen no favors in shaking that reputation, but it does represent the neurotic New Yorker’s most self-conscious reflection on his wistful inclinations.
There is never any doubt that “Midnight in Paris” is a Woody Allen film: from the opening travelogue montage of Paris accompanied by smooth Jazz Age tunes, to those distinctive titles (white Windsor font on a black background, as always), to Owen Wilson’s floundering intellectual protagonist, the usual pieces are in place. But what makes Allen’s latest piece unique is that element of self-awareness, something that’s been missing from much of his recent work. Often giving in to his creepiest/most annoying sexual neuroses and preoccupations (see: “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Whatever Works”) Allen’s films seemed to be designed for an increasingly niche audience; that is, one wondered exactly to whom those films were supposed to appeal besides Allen himself. With this latest offering, Allen has finally regained much of his broader charm.
Granted, “Midnight in Paris” will still provide the greatest entertainment to a fairly particular crowd, namely those who are at least somewhat familiar with the cosmopolitan crowd of intellectuals who hung out in Paris in the 1920’s. See, Gil (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter struggling to break free from his monotonous, hack working life, seeking inspiration for a novel under the Parisian lights. His wife Inez (Rachel McAdams), an upper-crust socialite, doesn’t understand Gil’s obsession with Paris’ literary past, preferring to associate with Paul (Martin Sheen), a pedantic pseudo-intellectual of the kind Woody Allen despises so dearly. Looking to escape Paul’s impromptu lectures and Inez’s pandering, Gil takes nightly to wandering the Paris streets, where he soon finds himself magically (and thankfully, inexplicably) transported to the 1920 version of Paris that he has always dreamed about.
It’s a fantastic conceit, allowing viewers in the know to be as thrilled as Gil when a never-ending parade of renowned figures make their way across the screen: there’s the Fitzgeralds, Scott and Zelda (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Luis Buñuel, Josephine Baker and many more, all under the watchful eye of honorary den mother Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). But even amongst the distracting presence of such creative luminaries, Gil finds his attention drawn (quite reasonably) by Adriana (Marion Cotillard), Picasso’s stunningly beautiful mistress.
The major plot points that follow are fairly predictable, all designed to lead up to an inevitable lesson on how the grass was always greener on last year’s lawn. But this all doesn’t matter much, because the real point is that Allen has rediscovered the penchant for fast, witty dialogue and sharp characterization that made him a cinematic treasure. It’s a little hard to take Allen telling us to appreciate the present after years of films like “Radio Days” and “Broadway Danny Rose,” but I’ll deal with it for scenes like Adrien Brody’s riotous cameo as Salvador Dalí.
See, the real benefit of having Allen’s writing back in classic form is that his cast (sterling, as always) has great material to chew on. Besides Brody, Stoll is a real stand-out, every bit the obnoxiously self-important man’s man that you imagine Hemingway was. Also notable are McAdams and Sheen, who take Allen’s weakest characters (the shrew wife and dull academic are stock Allen figures who have long since become stale) and inject them with enough life to keep them from dragging down the whole film. But the real star is Wilson, whose puppy-dog charm serves as a wonderful counterbalance to the usual nebbishy neuroses of Allen’s protagonists. Since he gave up on acting in his own films, Allen has clearly been looking for an on-screen surrogate, and Wilson is a superb alternative, with a strong enough persona of his own to do much more than simply imitate Allen’s quirks. Of course, then there’s French first lady Carla Bruni in an inexplicable supporting role as a museum tour guide, but let’s not go there.
Like his 1980 film “Stardust Memories,” “Midnight in Paris” is clearly very much a response by Allen to the legion of critics who prefer his earlier, “funnier” works. The message to leave the past behind and embrace forward progress could very well be a pointed suggestion to stop asking for another “Annie Hall” and embrace Allen’s recent attempts to try something new. I will simply conclude with two comments on that matter: 1) I still prefer Allen’s earlier, “funnier” works, and 2) I find it ironic that Allen so clearly had to return to his classical form in order to get anyone to listen to him when he says he wants to break with his classical form. C’est la vie.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars