Review: Cannes launches in style with Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight In Paris’

Woody Allen was one of the first people who taught me about screenwriting.

Not directly, of course.  These days, young writers are positively spoiled with the number of scripts they can read, and not just ones that have been officially published.  Almost anything you’re curious about is floating around out there online, easy to get hold of, often before the film is even released. As a result, the basic language of screenplay is far more accessible to young writers now than it ever has been before.

When I was first interested in film, though, it was not a commonplace thing to publish every screenplay, and if you were interested in learning about the craft, you either had to go to a film school’s library or, every now and then, you’d be lucky enough to see a script in book form.  One of the guys who made the effort to collect his scripts and publish them was Woody Allen, and reading his scripts led me to read his prose and his plays, and taken as a whole, his printed body of work informed the way I felt about him as a filmmaker, and some of my ideas about film in general.

In Allen’s world, the word is primary.  His films are these rich cascades of language, and sometimes it all adds up and sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes, it all snaps into focus and you get a genuine emotional and intellectual rush from what he does, and sometimes, it just lays there, intelligent but without a pulse.  And it’s often a matter of degrees between the two.  Some of what he did in his short fiction wouldn’t really work on film, and sometimes, his films feel like rough drafts, the result of his unrelenting schedule of a film a year.

Despite the ups and downs of the individual films, I would argue that few filmmakers have ever created a body of work as instantly recognizable as Allen’s, and that it is the sheer breadth of his work that you have to carry in with you these days.  Is “Midnight In Paris” a slight film?  In some ways, yes.  Does it further the concerns of Allen as an artist?  Absolutely, and it is deeply charming as well.

Gil (Owen Wilson) is a typical Allen stand-in as a lead character, hyper-verbal, consumed by neurosis, and dissatisfied with issues of the head and the heart.  He’s in Paris with his fiancee, Ines (Rachel McAdams), a rich girl whose rich parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) are doing some business in France.  Gil is a screenwriter, and a fairly successful one, but he wants to be a “real” writer, a novelist, and spending time in Paris has awakened his nostalgic side.  He dreams of the Paris of the ’20s, full of expatriate Americans, artists and writers all sharing ideas and beds, and he can’t help but look at his life and find it lacking by comparison.

I’ve written before about the insidious nature of nostalgia.  I understand it, but I also find it to be deadly and toxic to culture, and Allen uses Gil’s dilemma as a way of examining why we indulge in nostalgia and what it gets us, if anything, in the end.  In order to really examine it, Allen makes a whimsical leap into magical realism, allowing Gil a chance to step into that Paris that he dreams of.  Each night at midnight, a car appears to take him away into a world filled with Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso and the Fitzgeralds, both Scott and Zelda.  And while there is a bit of a rhythm that the film settles into as you wait for each new historical cameo, there’s something more at play in the film, and that subtext is what keeps it engaging.

It doesn’t hurt that Owen Wilson brings a real simmering sense of confusion and longing to the role.  When he first broke big, there was an unflappable confidence about his film work, one of the things that makes a character like Dignan so appealing.  These days, though, age and experience seems to have humbled Wilson somewhat, and the guy he is now is able to show us vulnerability and sorrow and regret, even as that motormouth of his still works at a mile a minute.  McAdams, who is normally the most likable person in any film, plays an unrepentant piece of work here, a girl who is used to being indulged and who doesn’t seem to have any real interest in her fiance’s inner life.  They’re mismatched in a very visible way, which gives Gil permission to explore this life after midnight, this better world he’s dreamed of.

There are some great supporting turns here.  Corey Stoll, who I really only knew from his work on “Law and Order: Los Angeles,” makes a tremendous Hemingway, and Adrien Brody shows up late in the film to offer up a delightfully silly take on a famous Surrealist.  The Fitzgeralds, as played by Tom “Loki” Hiddleston and Alison “Kim Pine” Pill, don’t have a lot of screen time, but the essence of their turbulent relationship is suggested in every line between the two of them.  And Kathy Bates makes a credible Gertrude Stein, more macho than any of the blustery men in her orbit, able to cut right through all the pretense to see the real value in the art they create.  Allen’s love of these people shines through in how he portrays them, and while it could easily just be a joke to have Cole Porter show up, Allen’s writing to theme in this one, and each of these appearances underlines just how much his own nostalgia is suspect, no matter how genuine his love.

The real heart of the film lies in the nascent relationship between Gil and a mysterious woman who he meets in the past, played by Marion Cotillard.  Ever since I saw her in “A Very Long Engagement” and “Love Me If You Dare,” I’ve been intrigued by the way the camera deals with her.  She’s a lovely woman, but she projects so much more than that, and I’m not sure if it’s her beautiful sad eyes or her fragile reserve, but whatever the case, she has that extra bit of charisma that distinguishes a beautiful woman and someone who belongs on film.  It makes sense that she’s playing a muse here, darting from artist to artist, and Gil finds himself drawn to her immediately.  She is his idealized age of Paris personified, and his attraction to her is his attraction to something long gone.

I would not call this top-tier Allen, but this is a guy who has directed a whole shelf full of classics already.  This is second-tier, which means it is merely charming and enjoyable and sophisticated and smart, shot with a luminous beauty by Darius Khondji, and as second-tier Allen goes, it is a lovely reminder of just how effortless he can make it all seem.  It’s also a gorgeous kick-off to Cannes, a love letter to a city that also points out how the romance is in us, not in the mere bricks and cobblestones and sculptures and rivers.  We give a place like Paris its power, and films like “Midnight In Paris” are part of that.

All in all, not a bad way to kick off my festival.  I’ll be back later tonight with a review of “Sleeping Beauty,” which looks like a wild ride.

“Midnight In Paris” opens in US theaters in limited release May 20, 2011.