Midnight in Paris – Review – Modern Greats #5

Michael Prescott
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Concluding our Modern Greats feature, at least for the foreseeable future, is Midnight in Paris. This might come as a slight surprise, with most seeing it as an enjoyable return to form for Woody Allen but not an awful lot more. But after already looking at features demonstrating directorial promise (Senna, Animal Kingdom, Shame), the opposite end of the spectrum seems like the right place to go, and it has nostalgic themes to boot.

After beginning his European jaunt with England’s Match Point and Spain’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody took to gay Paris in 2011 (before continuing on To Rome With Love last year) to put his idols and ours up on the silver screen. And whether it’s his golden touch, the ensemble cast or the pleasing premise that does the convincing, the reality is that it really works. The setup involves the ever-likeable floppy-haired scamp Owen Wilson prancing around as an unhappy screenwriter, wishing he could throw away all the ease and comfort in order to become a struggling novelist. It may sound as though we should loathe him, but there’s something in there resonating with each of us.

Gil (Wilson) has recently arrived in France’s big city alongside wife-to-be Inez, whose forceful cattiness is delivered by the usually-pleasant Rachel McAdams (even  in Mean Girls she’s still knowingly fun). She strives for a certain amount of detestability and produces it, even if not at great heights. Despite a rather obvious performance from her, there’s perhaps an argument to be had that her character is merely an exaggerated projection of Gil’s frustration, resentment and ultimate dissatisfaction – more of which later.

Together the twosome aim to see the sights and delights of Europe’s finest, but Gil’s increasing discomfort – partly due to the arrival of pedantic tosser Paul, played by Michael Sheen (who was in a real-life relationship with McAdams during filming, adding an extra layer to the trio’s on-screen dynamic) – leaves him instead roaming the streets alone at night. It’s at this point where reality becomes fantasy, and before we know it this hopeless romantic is soon sharing conversation with idols F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Again the theatrics are on show, but it’s most certainly to the film’s benefit. The likes of Tom Hiddleston (Fitzgerald) and Corey Stoll (Hemingway) – perhaps best known for his recent role as Peter Russo in House of Cards – are clearly having an awful lot of fun. And, as a result, so are we.

The gracefulness of Midnight in Paris is partly what sets it apart from its contenders, and indeed from much of Woody’s more recent work too. Whilst the everyday dialogue isn’t great and despite the idea being basic, it’s the execution that matters. One of the biggest compliments to give the film, not intended as backhanded, is to note how easy and enjoyable it is to watch (and partake in) such escapism. Done any differently, or handled by a less talented director, and it could quite easily have succumbed to being nothing more than forgettable family fare, aka Night at the Museum. But the laughs and charm in this neat little tale allow us to get lost in a world that we’ve long dreamed of visiting.

For sure, simplicity is the film’s greatest strength: it allows the rest of the film to focus on being beautiful and alluring, and to flourish as a result. The opening shots of Paris – accompanied by the bursts of a vibrant jazzy soundtrack (which plays seductively throughout) – ensures just this effect. And yet it does so all whilst invoking the seemingly identical ideas of nostalgia and romanticism, which are the two major themes at work. However these are actually at odds with one and other, and it’s the negotiation between such positions which Gil is internally combating throughout his entire ordeal.

Though Dali, Bunuel and Picasso provide the entertaining foreground, it’s true to say that the film – like many of the art forms it homages – has an extra layer or two beneath the surface waiting for exploration. The initial battle with this or any other motion picture is to get the audience on-side which it does so in a seemingly effortless manner, and from there the subtext can begin to take hold. For instance, whether Gil’s dissatisfaction with his life has actually got anything at all to do with Paris, romance and pipe dreams in and of themselves, or whether these are manifestations as a result of problems stemming from his wife’s refusal to entertain such notions (or indeed communicate appropriately at all), in a cause-and-effect dilemma, is just one such matter.

It’s a scary thought, but the film could be read as Gil’s state of mind, or a statement on the incompatibility and unrealistic demands of marriage as a societal concept. We know that Woody’s explored these sort of areas before, of course, arguably never moreso than in seminal releases Annie Hall and Manhattan. Regardless on your take, what Midnight in Paris does well is to stay clear of a complete vindication or rejection of these romantic and nostalgic ideas, with cautious shades of grey applied more than they may at first glance appear.

Despite Paul’s irritants, the theory he puts forward regarding the denial and fear of the present – and of the self – remains convincing when considering Gil’s attraction to the past. And yet the romantic notions held never quite disappear out of view over the course of the film, and given the nature of it, why exactly should they? Like a fine wine – or rather, a piece of art: a classic movie, a treasured painting, a moody melody – it’s all about choosing your battles, and preserving only the most treasured and trusted of ideas. Whether Gil, anyone else in the film or the viewer manages to locate such security in their personal philosophy over the course of the film, or their lifetime, is another matter altogether.

Midnight in Paris, then, has much to explore – certainly far more than I offer here – but part of the beauty in such broad brushstrokes is the opportunity for free roaming in a video-game-esque world that’s been created. After last week’s Shame article – and the previous three Modern Greats too – it’s time for me to take a back seat, and instead do little more than invite you in and allow you to weave and dance through the artistic merits and thematic symbolism of Woody Allen’s golden era.

About Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott