Retrospective: Midnight in Paris (2011)

Woody Allen is a director with an absorbing past but an uncertain present. He’s best known for inventing the genre of the rom-com with Annie Hall and many other innovative films. He is sadly also known for a hell of a lot of rubbish. Who remembers Match Point, for example?

The opening of Midnight in Paris gives the impression of a rather well-meaning love story between a place and a person. Gil (Owen Wilson) is raving about the wonders of Paris with the kind of marvel reserved only for liberal Americans who see nothing but wonder in the curious European ways. He happens to be a writer who’s moved from film screenplays to finally writing the great novel he has always promised himself to write, much to the chagrin of his soon to be wife, Inez (Rachel McAdams). Inez wants him to grow out of this phase and finally be less of a figure of embarrassment to her right-wing parents. One rather fantastic scene occurs when they have a family meal in a typical Parisian Bistro and the father mentions the only reason he has gone to Paris is for the takeover of a French company. Gil then gives a rather sweet speech about how even though they are divided politically, they still respect each other and the only reply is a stony silence.

The most interesting aspect of the movie is Gil’s belief that 1920s artistic Paris is where he would love to stay forever. He feels at home and holds the core belief that things are better in the past and the difficulty of squaring that with the present creates quite a conservative idea. This is challenged constantly especially by his friend, Paul (played by Michael Sheen who is completely unrecognisable). This eventually results in a very polite argument that leads to Gil wandering around Parisian streets trying to find his way back to the hotel. He’s astonished to discover his 1920s literary heroes such as Zelda Fitzgerald and various significant figures from the period. The movie concentrates on his experiences with his various heroes of this lost generation and they assist him with his great novel.

To really appreciate this movie you have to have a pretty good understanding of 1920s art and its major figures as pretty much all of them feature, including a fantastic Dali (Adrian Brody). He also encounters Ernest Hemmingway who is certainly the movie’s most fun character. Gils disappearances at night and how he explains it to his family is particularly well done and the impact of his midnight wanderings on his day time jaunts is very enjoyable, such as they result in him meeting two very pretty French women played by Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and Léa Seydoux.

This movie has many faults as it is completely unapproachable unless you have a fairly extensive knowledge of the artists and authors of the period to really get many of the jokes. It focuses on Paris and although pretty, it lacks depth and feels like ‘the Paris of movies’ despite being filmed on location. The Paris of Moulin Rouge or an American in Paris has vastly more depth and makes better use of the idea of Paris as an artistic hotbed but with huge issues and social disturbance. I was very surprised that the only reference to World War One was when Hemmingway was talking about his book considering its massive impact in the art world. Really, there should have been more references.  It’s got a rather dispiriting travelogue feeling, perhaps because the city of Paris on display is so familiar and cliched, which never felt so apparent in the much better and more subtle Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

The humour is not so sharp either. I also get the nagging feeling that he managed to get this fantastic cast but doesn’t quite know what do with all their talents. I could have done with far more of Adrian Brody on screen, for example. There’s the great feeling that Allen could have taken his idea even further if he wanted to. But as a filmic idea, it’s wonderful. Owen Wilson’s really got an existential Jewish angst which is a common theme in his male leads but the way it’s done looks so unlike Woody Allen, making it seem fresh even though this character has been in almost every movie he has done.

Despite this torrent of criticism it’s not a bad movie and it’s not comparable to some of his shockers but it’s just not a patch on his best. Its lazy and unapproachable but if you stick with it you can gain some enjoyment and pretend Vicky Christina Barcelona doesn’t exist otherwise you have the nagging feeling that you should be enjoying it far more. The arrival of the magical realism is at least a nice break from traditional the rom-com. It has some nice ideas trying to get out and is almost a return to form, but sadly contains a fair few sizable faults.

Midnight in Paris is out now in the UK. Running time 94 minutes. Certificate 12A (UK)

Review by Harry Riedl


One thought on “Retrospective: Midnight in Paris (2011)

  1. It’s hard to say where ‘Midnight in Paris’ ranks among Allen’s outrageously prolific and accomplished body of work (he’s more or less written and directed a new movie every single year since 1969 and won three Oscars to boot), but as far as 2011 is concerned, this one’s sitting pretty. Good review.

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