Sunday 2 October 2011

Diversions: "Midnight in Paris"

Woody Allen's films have increasingly come to resemble a succession of What I Did On My Holidays essays. After sojourning in Barcelona (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and an extended layover in London (Match Point, Cassandra's Dream, Scoop), this year Allen has arrived at Midnight in Paris, a rather fun divertissement that resembles Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure reworked for New Yorker subscribers. Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) mulls over kickstarting a proper literary career while visiting the city of love with his indifferent fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). One night, under the influence of the local vin rouge, Gil gets lost trying to navigate his way back to their hotel; picked up by a passing jalopy, he's transported to a bar where no less than F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda welcome him. They, in turn, whisk him away to an after-hours bistro where Papa Ernest Hemingway offers to show Gil's novel to Gertrude Stein. Adventures in the Golden Age follow, with walk-on parts for Matisse and Man Ray.

I think we now have to accept that, whether by design or through the limitations that follow with old age, Allen has scaled down his vision for good, and chosen to effectively work in miniature: these last few films in particular have actually seemed less like essays than they have postcards to be tacked to a fridge door, and Midnight in Paris continues the trend, conspicuously lacking the grand cinematic sweep of Everyone Says I Love You, the filmmaker's last excursion to Paris. Instead, it's content to offer a handsomely framed snapshot of a particular place at a particular time, one less concerned with the specifics of Paris in the 1920s than with Woody Allen's impression of what it might have been like to exist at that moment.

The film, Allen's biggest U.S. box-office success for some time, is thus primarily consoling fantasy, committed to recreating a world untouched by the disposability of much modern culture, where writers and artists still matter, and the women were apparently far less grasping and materialist. Gil leaves his fiancée back at the hotel to hitch further lifts to the past, hooking up with a mademoiselle who's modelled for both Braquo and Modigliani, and is now shacked up with Picasso: even the fucktrees were more impressive way back when. It should be noted that, as is often the case with late Woody, the female characters, with the possible exception of Alison Pill's sparky Zelda, are terrible: McAdams' shallowness is set by her peroxide-blonde locks and budges not one iota, while - as the model in question - Marion Cotillard can't really bring alive the sketchy reverie of a dame who's been taught tricks by prostitutes yet still resembles a Lancôme ambassador.

The men, however, are on very good form indeed. Wilson is both a useful link to a more contemporary form of screen comedy - I suspect his presence has a lot to do with the film's box-office - and the most likable of Allen's recent quip delivery systems, whether upbraiding pompous love rival Michael Sheen, or marvelling before T.S. Eliot ("You know, in my world, people measure out their lives in coke spoons"). In cameos, the previously unknown Corey Stoll makes an impression as a Hemingway whose imperiousness masks a quickly-tedious alpha personality, and Adrien Brody, who might once have played the Allen substitute role himself, is a hoot in his one scene as Dali, making a three-course repast of the word "rhinosceroses". Cinematographer Darius Khondji lends the past an appealingly warm, orangey-yellow glow; Allen, you sense, simply feels more at home within this milieu, with its potential for inspired conceptual jokes (one involving Bunuel, the other a private detective), than he was within the contemporary London of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. It's all rather daft, granted, but sweet with it, and undeniably well-crafted: we can stick this one on the fridge, and not feel too embarrassed about it.

Midnight in Paris opens nationwide from Friday.

1 comment:

  1. Alison Pill really should have slapped on some blackface for her moron Zelda. Not within miles of Zelda's dialect, of course.