Woody, je t'aime

Midnight in Paris ★★★★★
(Spain/USA, 94 min.)
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates, Corey Stoll, and Carla Bruni.
When Woody Allen unveiled Match Point in 2005, it seemed blasphemous that the cinema’s most devout New Yorker had made a film set in London. The result, as the Brits might say, had Allen come up smelling of roses: Match Point proved to be the Woodman’s comeback and subsequent films continued Allen’s European adventure much to the appeal of his devout fans. Allen’s latest stop finds him in Paris, and it’s a shame that Allen did not venture there earlier, as the Parisian cityscape seems ideally catered to the trademarks of his oeuvre: Paris suits his work just as well as Manhattan ever did in his best films of the Seventies. I think I enjoyed Midnight in Paris just as much as Julia Child liked butter. The joy of watching Midnight in Paris could be outmatched only by the experience of being in the great city itself, perhaps sitting on the patio of some small brasserie by the Seine, spreading pâté de foie gras onto a baguette while enjoying a healthy glass of Bordeaux and the sights, sounds and smells of Paris (the aroma of the city is a great mix of fresh bread, cigarettes, and dog poo … ah, Paris!).

Midnight in Paris brings together the best elements of Allen’s best films. The first ingredient is the neurotic American couple, Gil and Inez, played by Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams. As one expects in an Allen film, each scene of Gil and Inez’s trip occurs in postcard Paris, which looks exceptionally beautiful thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji. The betrothed tourists are in Paris with Inez’s parents, Helen and John (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller). Helen and John are the most vulgar of American tourists: they are loud, price tag touting philistines who think that a good night in Paris is spent watching an American movie at the multiplex (they probably talked during it, too). To Gil’s dismay, his fiancée is equally uncultured as her parents.
Enter the next Allen trait: the phony and pedantic pseudo-intellectual. By chance, Gil and Inez stumble upon another American visitor, Paul (Michael Sheen), who insists he be their guide throughout their visit. A self-professed expert on everything Parisian, Paul grates on Gil’s nerves whilst charming Inez. This allows Gil to give the group the slip one night and explore the city’s wonders on his own. At this point, Allen brings the best of his talents to the film and shoots Gil through a fanciful rabbit hole of magical realism.
A struggling writer with a soft spot for nostalgia, Gil finds himself in literati heaven when a prohibition-era taxi fetches him from the curb and transports him to a Paris nightclub where Cole Porter plays the piano and the guest list includes Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (played by Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston). Gil’s wonderment with these historic figures only increases when Fitz brings him to meet Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who immediately takes a shine to Gil. Gil’s nocturnal escapades introduce him to an array of the era’s most influential artists, from the straight-shooting Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) to the rhinoceros-obsessed Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody). Gil even pitches a movie to Luis Bunuel. The historical figures with whom Gil boozes it Paris-style give a uniqueness and freshness to Allen’s film. The actors cast to play the icons inhabit them wonderfully, giving them a colourful lust for life that exists only in one’s imaginative retreat into nostalgia. Stoll is particularly good as the brash, ultra-manly Hemingway.
Gil’s imagination gets the best of him, however, when Hemingway introduces him to Pablo Picasso and Picasso’s muse, Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Unlike Inez, Adriana fully appreciates Paris after dark; moreover, she embodies all that Gil needs – artistic inspiration, youth and beauty, and a taste of eras past. Cotillard is absolutely entrancing as Adriana: her charisma evokes the time when smoking was still sexy, and she is most mesmerizing when decked out in the flapper gear of the roaring twenties. It’s a shame no director dressed her in the part sooner. In Wilson, furthermore, it seems that Allen has found his best surrogate. Wilson’s offbeat timing and nasally wit perfectly complement the eccentricities of the “Woody Allen” character, but Gil also feels like the actor’s own creation. Midnight in Paris also becomes far more believable by seeing Adriana won over by the charms of the similarly aged Gil, rather than a septuagenarian.
Watching Gil fraternize with the icons, one senses Allen’s fascination and appreciation in fully immersing oneself in the treasures of the past. Allen’s script delivers plenty of witty and nuanced observations on both the contributions and the idiosyncrasies of each of the historical figures. Unlike the recent Certified Copy, which assumes prior knowledge of the film’s referents, Allen takes care to emphasize the names and traits of each character so that moviegoers less familiar with the likes of Hemingway or Stein will at least appreciate their importance to Gil.  
While Allen relishes in the playing with such memories, Midnight in Paris is arguably a forward-looking film. By the film’s end, Gil learns the difference between living in the past and learning from it. As Allen’s retreat into the strongest elements of his own body of work suggests, the past is an excellent place to gain inspiration, but such retrospection is only valuable if used to build towards something new. Midnight in Paris is therefore Allen’s most original and accomplished film in years. It also shows that after forty years of filmmaking, Allen’s still at the top of his game.

Midnight in Paris is currently playing in Ottawa at The Bytowne