Bright Lights Film Journal

Dispatches from Cannes 2011: #1: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris

DATELINE CANNES, May 13, 2011: When watching Woody Allen movies in the past, I was always reminded of a remark John Updike makes of one of his characters: “He thought that anyone who didn’t live in New York had got to be kidding.” I presume Allen shared that view, and his best work was in that city. He was to New York what Truffaut was to Paris and Fellini was to Rome. As he says in the magnificent pyrotechnical opening of Manhattan: “He adored New York City. He idolized it out of all proportion. No, make that, he romanticized it out of all proportion . . . New York was his town and it always would be.”

The same lines could have opened Midnight in Paris, substituting the City of Light for New York. Like Manhattan, Midnight in Paris opens with a montage of all the tourist spots of the city, with a jazz score on the soundtrack. Given that the film is so cliché-ridden, it is surprising that Woody avoided using Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris.” However, Porter’s “Let’s Do It” is given more than enough time, and the composer himself appears in the back-to-the-future or forward-to-the-past sequences.

You see, Hollywood hack writer and would-be novelist Gil Pender (an uncharismatic Owen Wilson) is in Paris with his spoilt fiancée and her wealthy Republican parents. As they do the usual sites and go shopping, Gil, who is enchanted by Paris, likes to walk along the Seine and meet real Parisians. However, the latter are sorely absent. The city is merely a nicely photographed (Darius Khondji) backdrop for American tourists. Wilson, in the role that Allen would have played in his better, younger, and funnier days, imagines himself in the Paris of the 1920s. There he meets caricatured versions of Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel, and Gertrude Stein in the way any sophomoric student of literature would imagine them. This could be excused by arguing that it is the character’s vision and not the director’s, but it is plainly Woody’s superficial wow-gee-whiz dream of what-if he had actually known these artists in Paris in the 1920s.

The problem is that Woody has tried to have his gateau and eat it, too. First there is an implicit criticism of wealthy philistine American tourists, and yet the only Paris that we see is the wealthy side, underlined by the sycophantic casting of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and all the ballyhoo that accompanied it. (Don’t blink or you might miss her.)

Owen Wilson, Woody Allen, and Marion Cotillard on the set of Midnight in Paris

Then there is the slightly satiric attitude toward the “pedantic” American academic (Michael Sheen, bearded, of course). But the film itself is pedantic in its self-regarding name-dropping and nudge-nudge asides. When Wilson meets T. S. Eliot, he misquotes Prufrock as a joke. After he has danced with lesbian novelist Djuna Barnes, he makes a crack about her leading him. He suggests the plot of The Exterminating Angel to Buñuel, who doesn’t get it. These are among the pseudo-intellectual jokes in the film.

Yet the main confusion in the screenplay is its attitude to nostalgia. Since Husbands and Wives (1992), the last of Allen’s films in the premier league, people, including fans like me, gradually learned not to expect much more from a Woody Allen movie than a mild, reasonably enjoyable, slightly old-fashioned entertainment. The Manhattan Murder Mystery (old Bob Hope movie), Bullets over Broadway, Small Time Crooks (Warner Bros. comedy thrillers), Mighty Aphrodite (’30s romantic comedy), Everybody Says I Love You (MGM musical), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (’40s film noir), all have Woody wallowing in nostalgia. But, as the saying goes, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

The dangers and pleasures of escaping into the past are the main theme of the schematic Midnight in Paris. The author is writing a novel about a man who runs a memorabilia shop. The girl he finally falls for works in a shop that sells old 78 records. The know-it-all academic talks of the “golden age syndrome.” In order to ram it home, there is a sequence when the hero and Picasso’s mistress (Marion Cotillard) find themselves in la belle epoche, at Maxim’s and the Moulin Rouge, where they naturally meet Toulouse Lautrec. She wants to stay, but he wants to return to the ’20s. Finally, Owen Wilson delivers, rather obviously, the film’s Message that every epoch thinks that the previous epoch was the golden age. Thus the film, which is ambivalent toward nostalgia, is perhaps Allen’s most shamelessly nostalgic.

As for Paris, it is a city as recognizable as it was from 1950s Hollywood pictures. Ernst Lubitsch once said that he preferred Paris, Paramount to Paris, France. Allen prefers the Paris of his imagination to the real Paris. Next stop Rome (think Three Coins in The Fountain!). Since 2005, excepting for Whatever Works, which was based on an old script, Woody has been globetrotting, uprooting himself, and doing his reputation no good. I think there is still time for Woody to return to the city where he was most comfortable. “New York was his town and it always would be.”