At the second attempt, I was finally strolling in to the second screening of the Woody Allen film that had a few hours earlier, been the opening film of the Cannes Film Festival 2011 (Midnight In Paris). It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I glided past the stern looking ushers (suited crowd management, many of which wouldn’t look out of place working the doors of some inner city drinking establishment). My worry was not so much the imminent frisking, indeed those responsibilities seem to have been largely delegated to fresh faced, overly alluring women.
For the most part my pondering was whether I was about to embark on a film which would end up in the good pile of Allen films, which in the last decade or so include films such as Match Point and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, or in the bad which unfortunately has been pretty much everything else. What was coming was a pleasant surprise.
In the film Owen Wilson plays a successful Hollywood script writer, Gil Pinder, who is wishing to branch out and fulfil his dream of becoming a literary novelist. Pinder has arrived in Paris with his fiancée Ines (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, who are all staying in a 5 star luxury hotel. The only real reason for this jaunt it seems, is that McAdams’ father has come to France to complete business negotiations.
While Pinder revels in the opportunity to be in what he sees as the best city in the world, his fiancée does not share his love for the culture and splendour that Paris holds. Quite coincidentally, the couple also bumps into a former lecturer and friend of McAdams’ character named Paul (Michael Sheen) and his girlfriend. Paul is a pseudo-intellectual, who seems to have no end to his knowledge or arrogance, and whom McAdams’ character cannot seem to get enough of.
Midnight In Paris starts off with a montage of images from the Parisian district. We see quaint side streets, looming shots of the Eiffel Tower and Arc De Triumph, and scenes of such innocence and unimportance that it almost borders of voyeurism. The sequence is perhaps too lengthy I would argue, however what that succeeds in doing is showing us that the majority of life even within the most picturesque setting, has an overriding sense of normality which with it can also bring beauty.
Upon the conclusion of these shots, the film moves onto the opening credits with Gil talking over the top in conversation with his fiancée. He is trying to convey to Ines how attractive Paris is, both in its aesthetic properties and in its cultural influences over him. His ideal time period and setting he explains, is Paris in the 1920’s. She does not seem to agree on any of these points, and finds it utterly absurd that Gil would want to walk its streets in the rain; the only result of this being ‘you just get wet’.
With the introduction of Paul and his girlfriend, we see the bickering couple invited to a number of artistic and middle/upper class events such as private art exhibitions and wine tasting. All of which provide Paul with the arena to flex his intellectual muscle, with both Ines and his girlfriend hanging on his every word. While Gil has an obvious dislike to Paul, it seems slightly unbelievable that he does not realise the adoration Ines has for him. This placement of the pedestal by Ines leads to her dismissing comments and thoughts of Gil when in company with Paul, and she seems to have to condescend to even speak to her fiancée.
The main plot for the film comes when, at the end of the wine tasting (followed by excessively drinking) evening, Paul invites Gil and Ines to go dancing. Inevitably Ines jumps at the chance to spend more time with her charming and witty friend, but Gil decides to drunkenly make his way back to the hotel, hoping to find inspiration for his incomplete novel. With Gil seemingly lost, as a church bell strikes midnight and a 1920’s car appears around the corner and stops.
A rear passenger alights and gestures for Gil to come over to the car, and invites him to get inside. With minimal arm twisting, Gil enters the car and stares in bemusement at the outfits the couple in the back are wearing. It is when they arrive at an on-going lounge party, and Gil starts interacting with other people that the realisation of the scenario emerges. This being that somehow, Gil has managed to transport himself back to 1920’s Paris.
On returning to the present later that night, Gil is equally shocked, excited and restless. It occurs to Gil that he will be able to revisit the past again if he follows the same proceedings as the previous evening. As Gil travels back in the most un-DeLorean looking car every night, just after midnight, what can only be described as a dream team of French Cultural icons is brought to the fray for Gil to interact with.
These include Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and the list goes on. In addition to these identifiable characters, Gil is also introduced to Adriana (Marion Cotillard) – a 20 something female who is initially the mistress of Picasso. With her previous relationships with other French artists, Gil quite fittingly refers to Adriana as an ‘art groupie’ – a term which is rightly lost on her.
Gil decides to utilise this ability of going back in time, to improve his book and experience Paris in what he considers as the Golden Age. Not to mention, to gain more knowledge with which to overshadow Paul during the day. What becomes apparent is that while Ines is frustrated with Gil’s constant late night walks and absurd notions that he is able to go back in time and talk to Hemmingway, she has no inclination to try and understand her fiancée and the values which he seems to hold dear; both her and her parent’s views are that Gil should stick you what he does best, and that is script writing.
They do not share his view point that he wants to feel fulfilled, and struggling in a happy life is better than being comfortable in an unhappy one. Gil is not fazed by the constant put downs, but finds himself revisiting the past for more reasons than that of his initial intentions. He increasingly becomes drawn to Adriana, and as his feelings grow he finds it relatively easy to concentrate on his flashback romance as opposed to working on his present time failing relationship. As the film moves on, Gil’s preference for what he sees as the Golden Age of Paris overtakes his desire to stay in the present.
In the last quarter we see a realization by Gil that he needs to stop living in the past, and concentrate on his real life. This comes about when both Gil and Adriana manage to travel even further back in time to Belle Époque. She confesses that it is her wish to stay here, and for her THIS is the golden age. With what can only be reluctance, both Gil and the audience are forced around to Paul’s way of thinking, that people who live in nostalgia and with the notion of a previous golden age, only do so because of their denial and fear of the present.
Upon Gil traveling back to the future (no pun intended) for the last time, he confronts Ines over his sudden realization that she is having an affair with Paul, and states his intention to stay in Paris. The end of the film we look upon a chance meeting which sees Gil hook up with a market worker, with whom he has met previously in the film and developed a bond with due to their mutual liking of Cole Porter music.
The film itself, is a nostalgia trip where we are compelled to look back on 1920s France with the same favorability and idolisation as Gil. We are drawn into disliking Paul, and from the off with the passion of the narrative given by Gil with which Ines can only scoff at, the audience can see the main thing that Gil cannot – that Ines is not the right woman for him. With the constant to-ing and fro-ing between time periods and love interests, I can’t help but be reminded of the BBC sitcom starring Nicholas Lyndhurst, Goodnight Sweetheart.
It is a fun, well written and witty film. I proclaim a major aim of the film is to play on the fact that people in general will always romanticise the past, whether this be the past of their own lives, or when looking back at a so called golden age. The message being that the past is the past, and we should look to make the right decisions in the present, and appreciate the choices which are given to us now instead of what has gone before.
A strange thing for me was that this did not particularly feel like a Woody Allen film. For sure if shares his on running theme that any character seems capable of cheating on anyone, and the way Paris is depicted which such grounded reality, is a characteristic which Allen masters, if maybe inconsistently. Perhaps it is the Owen Wilson effect which gives off the feeling that we are not watching a typical Woody Allen creation. This is not to say that he is not surprisingly good and refreshing in his role as Gil, because at the end I cannot believe I came out of a film actually liking a character portrayed by Wilson, and for the most part getting sucked in to rooting for Gil.
The film does have certain flailing parts. The last quarter seems rushed, and it is not stated very well that Gil and Adriana are faced with the chance to go further back in time; it just seems to suddenly happen. The confliction of Gil and Ines is also slightly unbelievable. As mentioned before, Gil seems to be totally oblivious for most of the film, that Ines does not share any of his life goals, appreciation for art, or values. It is quite tenuous that anyone could be as materialistic as Ines, and especially her mother, and as an audience we are given very little choice but to detest Paul.
Overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable film. It is funny, heart-warming in places and fills you with a desire to share Gil’s appetite for personal fulfillment. It would work for a number of audiences, and is definitely a film to keep on the shelf to get down on those days when you want to be transported to a magical Paris fairy tale. This very much so belongs on the good pile of Allen films.