Midnight in Paris

Things seem just a little bit different as Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen's 41st feature and his first shot entirely in the eponymous City of Light, gets started. The staple jazz-tinged opening credits are interrupted for an extended sequence of lovely but not-quite-postcard-ready images of the streets, waterways, and monuments of Paris and, when the credits resume, the jazz has subsided and we hear two distinctly American voices bickering. "You're in love with a fantasy," says a female voice that ends up belonging to the radiant yet odiously over-privileged Inez (Rachel McAdams), who looks out on a pond that may have inspired Monet. "I'm in love with you," calls back her fiancé, Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful screenwriter and aspiring novelist who dreams of walking the tight corridors of the famed city in the rain.

Blind nostalgia is Gil's drug of choice, and despite being on vacation with his soon-to-be wife's parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy, beautifully cast), the studio-approved scripter is covertly considering a post-nuptials move to France. To Inez, Gil is merely swept up in the romanticism of the city and she refuses him even the most minor of indulgences, even openly scolding him when he disagrees or even slightly disturbs Paul (Michael Sheen), an old friend, traveling professor, and unerringly obnoxious intellectual. When Paul offers to take Inez dancing, Gil takes the chance to walk the streets under cover of night, ending up at the steps of a cathedral as the grand bells strike midnight and a car full of drunken Parisians pulls up in a decidedly anachronistic automobile. Already a few glasses of wine in, Gil obliges them and is immediately flung back into the heyday of Parisian culture, circa 1920.

Roaming around in the post-war salad days, Gil is privileged to hobnob with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), drink with Hemingway (Corey Stoll), trade philosophies with Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody, obviously having some fun), even get a few notes on his unpublished novel from Gertrude Stein, lovingly played by Kathy Bates; Cole Porter sticks around just to sing a few bars of "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love." In the morning, however, it all goes back to normal, prompting return trips that make Inez and her parents suspicious enough to call in a private eye. Following Gil proves impossible, allowing the soon-to-be groom to pitch to Luis Bunuel and romance Picasso's latest muse (Marion Cotillard), who has her own romance for the late 19th century.

Gil inevitably falls for Cotillard's wandering flapper, erupting in a confluence of fantasies at famed Maxine's after a can-can show but Allen has not gone completely soft on us. Allen's previous film, the severely underrated You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, ended warmly on two spiritually inclined, elderly lovebirds while faux-intellectuals, atheists, misogynists, and philanderers seemingly were given their cosmic punishments. For Allen, it seemed like a grand gesture made sincerely towards a contingency that he showed little more than pity or disdain for beforehand, and Midnight in Paris continues in the vein of that film. Less schematic and thematically dialectic than a great deal of the director's late work, Midnight in Paris eschews the pleasures of nostalgia and delusions, but also suggests that they evolve from a great internal displeasure, in this case Gil's suspicions of Inez having an affair with Paul and not loving him all that much.

Not that Gil has been strictly devoted to Inez: When not applying his aw-shucks brand of seduction to Picasso's mistress, he can be seen flirting with a young woman at the local bazaar (the enchanting Lea Seydoux). He even chats up a guide at the Rodin Museum, played by France's first lady and former super model Carla Bruni. As much as Cotillard is a fantasy, Inez represents an illusion of what a grounded, successful man should seek in a wife and, by extension, in life. In other words, the fantasy Allen, who wrote his own screenplay per usual, sculpts for Gil offers the would-be novelist both a luminous escape and a mirror to lend insight into his connubial predicament, which includes entering into a family of overindulged snobs and Tea Party supporters.           

Shot by the great Darius Khondji, Midnight in Paris celebrates the timeless allure of the City of Light to the cinematic image without apology but it never goes as far as to overstate that allure. The same can be said about its attitude towards cultural idols, who show up here stripped of their great artistic weight and are presented as lovefools, eccentrics, macho bullheads, and, in the case of Bates's Stein, a sort of mother superior to the whole lot. (Indeed, the film is an ipso facto parody of the sacrosanct attitude given many biopics of heralded artists.) And Allen finds himself a strong proxy in Wilson, who hasn't responded this well to a director since traveling to India with Wes Anderson in The Darjeeling Limited. Allen's trip to Paris doesn't resonate with the immense emotional complexities that Anderson's film did but his fantastical bit of time travel brings out a startling generosity and humanity in Allen that has only been seen in glimpses recently. Fantasies are as much tied to our personal desires as they are to our sense of mortality, but if Gil's concluding walk over a rainy bridge with a lovely young woman is any indication, some things defy even the unforgiving specter of time.      

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