Monday, June 13, 2011

Caitlin's Review of Midnight in Paris

Pitch-Perfect Paris by Caitlin Murphy

Woody Allen makes movies so often that it’s ironically pretty easy to forget that he makes movies. His films are givens, inevitabilities like Christmas or taxes. Like most women, I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with Woody Allen. Sometime after the initial flurry of excitement for his impressive body (of work), I lost interest. Predictably, it was the corny humour and creepy sex stuff in Allen’s work that I’d learned to dread; so, I found the off-ramp. By the time he was hitting a new stride with his more recent fare, I couldn’t really muster the energy to merge back on. However, Allen’s latest offering, Midnight in Paris, is an absolute delight, one that finds him in fine form indeed, and me feeling surprisingly seduced anew.

Midnight in Paris is about Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful, but unfulfilled screenwriter, who has larger literary aspirations; he has just finished writing his first novel and is angst-ridden about its merit. Visiting Paris with his fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, Gil falls instantly in love with the city, and starts to get ideas about moving there, a plan that tensely conflicts with Inez’s Malibu mansion dreams. One drunken night, meandering the streets lost and alone, Gil is picked up by a strange car and inexplicably taken back in time; suddenly he finds himself at the epicentre of 1920’s artsy Parisian party-life, meeting literary luminaries like Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot (and even able to get Gertrude Stein to give a once-over to his novel).

As an unabashed neurotic, Allen’s films are always partly about the need to escape existential claustrophobia by finding a point of distraction outside ourselves. Often, especially when Allen starred in his own films, this outside obsession was of course a way-too-young, absurdly attractive love interest that the protagonist would simply project(ile vomit) himself onto. And that’s usually when I’d look for the exit. Here though, because the point of focus is time, place and art (much like in Bullets Over Broadway), the story feels much more inviting and less insular; and though a beautiful romantic interest does figure in the story (played by Marion Cotillard), she is quite secondary to the film’s interest in the beauty of Paris and the power of art. For Allen, one of the main uses for love is that it gets us thinking about something other than ourselves; nostalgia and longing, as the particular form love takes here, up the universality of the story and increase empathy for Gil.

Cozying up to France’s reputation for high art and culture, the film is funniest in its send-ups of aspirational elitism. Gil’s dream of transitioning from Hollywood hack to noted novelist reflects our need to align with whatever is deemed lofty and important – fine wine, literature, art. Allen perfectly sets up the American perspective here: “culture is intimidating, especially when it’s old.” In one scene, a character self-consciously repeats French place names trying to get the right pronunciation, or at least announce her awareness that there is one. Paul, an academic friend of Inez’s, becomes the couple’s pedantic tour-guide on every museum visit or Parisian promenade. His presence is hilariously over-bearing, entertaining educator to the women, obnoxious bore to Gil. It’s a particular talent of Woody Allen’s to sympathize with this kind of aspirational impulse and mock it at the same time. (A bit like having Marshall McLuhan show up and interrupt a pretentious conversation about Marshall McLuhan; Allen knows how to have his cake and eat it too in this regard.) When Gil is pressed by Inez to yet again meet up with Paul for another must-see site, Gil steels himself with the rallying cry: “Let’s go get some culture!” The skewering is simultaneously nasty and kind, and wonderfully on the mark.

There is clearly an improvisational approach to the acting in Midnight in Paris, and you often distinctly feel that you are watching people who know they’re in a movie. But that works with Woody Allen – it’s something to do with his ability to stand inside something and outside of it at the same time. That said, some actors are more successful with this style than others: Rachel McAdams, as Inez, often seems overwhelmed by the exercise, as though she’s stumbling through her first day of improv class asking: “you mean just make stuff up? But what kind of stuff though?” The films many cameos are a treat – Carla Bruni, Adrian Brody, to name a couple – and offer the audience that same giddy thrill Gil experiences meeting historical figures like Picasso and Dali. That flash of recognition, even when I felt it from audience members surrounding me for celebrities that I couldn’t place, is pure joy.

Owen Wilson, effectively Woody Allen’s stand-in, embodies precisely what’s needed to pull off the fantastical mode here. Wilson doesn’t have much acting range, but that doesn’t really matter. His talent is his availability to the absurd; he nails that “what the heck is going on here?” naivety. His performance perfectly reflects the plot’s baffling circumstances, but never gets bogged down in their rhyme or reason. It’s largely thanks to him that the film so easily finds its proper register.

Of course in the end, Gil’s obsession with 1920’s Paris is exposed as simple grass is greener thinking. As much as our own time can feel like it’s particularly empty or lacking, denizens of other eras, the very ones we idealize, have felt the same way about theirs. To be human is to compare, and (as Allen well knows) to complain. Nostalgia, like any form of desire, is always more about the wanting subject than the waiting object. It’s a simple theme, a “minor realization,” as Gil himself admits when it finally hits him, but it’s one that always seems to pack a punch, even if it’s to a familiar spot.

Aesthetically, Midnight in Paris is a minor feast. The film’s title suggests the essence of its aesthetic appeal – time and place – which are beautifully reflected in the music, costumes, and stunning scenery. One of the under-acknowledged strengths of any good film, is its ability to know what it is (and, by extension, what it’s not): Midnight in Paris is a perfect little pastry – light, airy, tasty – no less a treat for being a simple one.

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