By Robert Koehler
Woody Allen’s Paris tourism promotion film, Midnight in Paris, clearly caught its Cannes audience–who saw it opening night, some 100 films and what may seem like a century ago–in a forgiving mood. A few, perhaps sufficiently jet-lagged, drunk, who knows, were actually willing to call it a masterpiece, and the same willingness to let Allen slide was something I witnessed the other night at the Academy Theatre, where Midnight made its U.S. premiere. A strange goodwill continues to hover around the character of Allen, whom some believe has made many good films, some great, and even go so far as to claim that he’s the greatest American comedy filmmaker since Chaplin. (These were precisely the foolish words of AFI President Bob Gazzale, not known for his cinephilia, when he introduced the film at the Academy. One can only imagine what bon mots Thierry Fremaux tossed to Allen in the Palais.) Some critics are calling Midnight in Paris things like “his best film in the past fifteen years,” which would mean his best since that world-beater from 1996, Everyone Says I Love You. In more than a few film cultures, had Allen issued as many bad films as he has, he would have long ago been barred from getting anywhere near a movie camera. As it is, he’s effectively no longer an American director, and now officially a Spanish filmmaker: Spain is the primary producing country of Midnight, just as it was of his previous bad films, like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and the risibly awful Vicky Christina Barcelona, which depicts a Barcelona where nobody speaks Catalan.
As if Spain needed another bad filmmaker. There is this: Midnight in Paris does start with the only cinema Allen has managed in years (more than fifteen), and for once, he’s not imitating one of his avowed masters. This opening montage of city scenes in Paris looks dull enough, certainly touristic: The Tuileries, Champs d’Elysees, the Madeleine, Montparnasse, the Tour d’Eiffel, even (in his only tip of the cap to Paris modernity), I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre. Just as the montage seems sure to end, it keeps going, showing various views of mostly anonymous streets during an afternoon rain, which then stops, and gives way to night, and what amounts to a third movement of edits around the city leading up to midnight. This is Allen imitating himself, the montage at the beginning of Manhattan, his love letter to New York City, and his first indicator that he had a thing for potentially underage girls. But it does unfold an environment, observes the course of time, and might be likened (particularly in cadence) to montages in some of Heinz Emigholz’recent architecture films.
Nice; some cinema for once. Then the rest of the movie unfolds, and it’s one more time into the crapper with Woody. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a hack screenwriter from Los Angeles visiting Paris with his obnoxious fiance Inez, played by Rachel McAdams, and he’s swooning for the place. She can’t imagine what he’s talking about, which instantly sets things utterly wrong. Inez, it quickly becomes clear, isn’t a human being; she’s both a bourgeois Republican monster and a construct designed such that Gil may easily run away from her. Unlike Ernst Lubitsch, whom Allen sometimes mimics here and who is actually the greatest comedy director since Chaplin, Allen can’t set up an honest relationship, and the Inez monster figure is one of many ways in which he provides Gil with the perfect excuse to escape into his fantasies of Paris in the 1920s.
This comes in the form of a beautiful motorcar that rolls up to the curb at midnight, and in an exact reversal of Cinderella, Gil goes to the ball. It’s hosted by Cocteau, but Gil is taken in by Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, given something approaching life by Corey Stoll. Allen clues the viewer much too early that Gil is imagining this, thus leaving Midnight in Paris hanging unresolved between fantasy and some sort of reality. This nostalgic time-travel device is something he’s done before; this variation most directly recalls The Purple Rose of Cairo, but Allen has long had one foot in the 1920s through his references and musical love of Dixieland jazz. He’s long noted that he sometimes feels that he was born in the wrong era, which is what Gil feels. Until Allen feels the compulsory urge to set things straight, as it were, via Gil as he falls for Adriana (Marion Cotillard), lover of Picasso and Hemingway. The message is delivered that we never know when we’re living in a golden age (Adriana certainly doesn’t, and yearns for the earlier La Belle Epoque), since we’re yearning for the past, which we know only through received wisdom and not the quotidian grind of direct experience.
Some Cannes-goers want to take this as a great breakthrough for Allen, who has supposedly wrenched himself free of his silly romantic notions of a past where all the best art (movies, literature, jazz) has already been made, and we’re just here as recyclers. (It’s hard not to view his entire opus in this light, except for his early, crazy and best comedies, like Bananas, which are mostly firmly rooted in the present.) Yet in the end Gil is a free man in Paris and able to have a chance encounter with a (younger, naturally) woman who runs a–guess it–antiques shop at an open street market. Two nostalgics, made for each other, walking in the rain, which always makes the Paris streets prettier in photographs don’t you know. Woody Allen hasn’t budged an inch, but Cannes loves him anyway.