Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Midnight in Paris (Gravier Productions, Mediapro, Pontchartrain Productions, Sony Pictures “Classics,” 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched last night was Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s 2011 release that was the biggest box-office draw of his career — an unexpected commercial comeback for someone who had pretty much been written off as a guy who was going to be making little art-house movies for the rest of his life — and though almost no one writing about this film has mentioned it, it’s actually based on a routine he did on one of his stand-up albums in the 1960’s, in which he did an elaborate fantasy about himself hanging out with the “Lost Generation” of American expats in Paris in the 1920’s and kept getting punched out, mostly by Ernest Hemingway but at least once (in the punch line of the whole routine) by Gertrude Stein. As part of this routine, Allen also deadpanned, “Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were just breaking up their New Year’s party — it was April.” Midnight in Paris deals with Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a successful screenwriter who’s decided his career is no longer artistically fulfilling, so he’s dropped out of screen work to write a novel and he’s gone to Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel MacAdams) and her parents John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy). While in Paris Gil and Inez run into another couple, a pedantic professor named Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife Carol (Nina Arianda).

One night, when Paul and Carol are going to a dance club and want Gil and Inez to come along, Gil begs off and instead goes for a long romantic solo walk through the streets of Paris until he hits a particular corner as the clock strikes midnight (literally — there’s a bell clock audible on the soundtrack) and an old car pulls up that turns out to contain the literati and glitterati of the Lost Generation: F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), his wife Zelda (Alison Pill) and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), younger and considerably less grizzled than the late-in-life photos we’re used to seeing and also without his famous beard. I suppose Midnight in Paris could be described by that wretched cliché “magical realism,” since we’re not given any scientific explanation for the time-travel element of the plot (which itself derives from a previous Allen short story, “The Kugelmass Episode,” in which a middle-aged Jewish professor is transported via a mysterious cabinet into the plot of his favorite novel, Madame Bovary, and he not only has an affair with her in her own fictional world but brings her back into our own and complains, among other things, that his restaurant bills for their dates are approaching the size of the U.S. defense budget; the story’s best line comes when Allen describes how other professors are perplexed when their editions of Madame Bovary include her affair with a middle-aged American Jew, but they rationalize it by saying things like, “Oh, well, every time you read a classic, you discover something new”).

Instead the plot is a kind of spoof of nostalgia and nostalgia freaks (the protagonist of Gil’s novel is a clerk at a “nostalgia shop,” which Inez derisively refers to as “one of those places where they sell Shirley Temple dolls”) overlaid on a typically Allenesque tale of a mismatched couple realizing, through a series of tragicomic events, how mismatched they are and parting. Gil’s fantastical adventures in his dream Paris of the 1920’s lead him to quite a few other famous names of the period, including Gertrude Stein (a marvelous turn by Kathy Bates), T. S. Eliot (David Lowe), Salvador Dali (a nicely theatrical bit by Adrien Brody), Man Ray (John Cordier), Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), Djuna Barnes (Emmanuelle Uzan), Cole Porter (Yves Heck — though the voice we hear on the soundtrack that’s supposedly Porter performing his own songs doesn’t sound like the real Porter’s records and I suspect Allen used recordings by Bobby Short), Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland), Pablo Picasso (Marcial de Fonzo Bo) and his (fictional) mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard, in what’s far and away her best film since La Vie en Rose). Gil and Adriana have a fling of sorts — there’s a nice comic moment in which Inez is being questioned by her parents as to whether Gil is having an affair, and since he’s begged off all those disco dates she says, “Well, one thing’s for sure, she doesn’t dance” — and then Allen cuts to Gil and Adriana dancing to a 1920’s band version of “Ain’t She Sweet?” (Many of Allen’s films use the characters’ different tastes in music to symbolize and show us the differences in their personalities.)

The film is both an exercise in nostalgia and a marvelous send-up of it; towards the end Adriana reveals that she’s really bored with her own existence in the 1920’s and the era she really wanted to live in was the Belle Epoque (the 1890’s) — and she and Gil end up there, only to find that the big-shot artists of the time, Toulouse-Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), Gauguin (Olivier Rabourdin) and Degas (François Rostain), really wish that they were back in the Renaissance hobnobbing with Michelangelo and Titian! What’s more, the private detective Inez’s father Jack hired to follow Gil to see if he was having an affair disappears down his own historic rathole and finds himself forced to flee for his life from the agents of the Reign of Terror. It also turns out Inez is the one having an affair — with Paul, whom we’ve been told was an old friend of hers from college and actually dated her before he married someone else — and in a plot twist we can see coming about four reels away, Gil ends up not only deciding to live in Paris but getting an alternate (present-day) partner, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux). Midnight in Paris at once celebrates the appeal of nostalgia and spoofs it — a double act Allen has been playing at least since Manhattan, in which he contrasted George Gershwin’s music from the 1920’s and the 1930’s with the New York of the time (1979) by using Gershwin’s songs to score a contemporary film (and the reviewer for the music magazine Fanfare got into the spirit by reviewing the soundtrack album as if Gershwin were a modern-day young composer of unformed but unquestionably impressive talent) — and one of the most delightful scenes shows Gil shopping at the Paris flea market for an old 78 of a Porter song and ending up with Adriana’s diary, which he can’t read (Gabrielle translates it for him) but which gives him the clue how to woo Adriana in her time.

 Midnight in Paris is a real gem, beautifully acted — especially by Owen Wilson, who manages to capture Woody Allen’s own mannerisms and vocal tics, though they “read” quite differently from the WASP’y Wilson than they did when Allen was delivering them in his nightclub days with his ineradicably Jewish intonations and affect — and sensitively directed, though the cinematography by Johanne Debas and Darius Khondji is locked way too tightly in today’s past-is-brown, present-is-brown, everything-is-brown clichés. Personally, I thought Allen’s comeback should have happened two films earlier, with Whatever Works — a movie that was a homecoming for him both geographically (it was both shot and set in New York City; he’d finally got a production deal that didn’t oblige him to work in Europe, as most of his recent contracts have) and thematically (a Jewish male lead and a plot about intergenerational relationships and unexpected personal transformations) — but it was nice to see Midnight in Paris achieve the success Woody Allen deserves and become an early favorite for Academy Awards contention — even though this film, shot in France with American actors and set in Paris, was ultimately supplanted in the Oscar race by The Artist, a film shot and set in Hollywood by people from France!