CANNES, France — The world’s premier film festival has commenced, and the late 1960s Jerry Schatzberg photograph of Faye Dunaway at the center of this year’s festival poster gazes down on all of us pasty mortals, visitors to this resort town overrun by people with screening-access badges flung around their necks.
The 2011 Cannes attendees experienced none of the ash-covered adversity or delays caused by last year’s pesky Icelandic volcano. The weather (70s and sunny) makes a mockery of those who are about to spend 12 days indoors, in the dark. It’s enough to give the French Riviera a reputation as a vacation paradise. Wait. Right. It already has that reputation.
“Our set never suns.” That’s how Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times once put it.
We’re a few dozen movies too soon to tell if this year’s Cannes will lead to a cinematic paradise, a line-up (awards to come on closing night, May 22) strong enough to compete with the beach and the food and the skies. But in one of his late-career bright spots, Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” opened the 64th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in an out-of-competition screening Wednesday night attended by Allen and cast members Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Adrien Brody and Michael Sheen.
The film is good. Not a radical change in direction or form. But good. It rides on a familiar but clever and expansive central idea that sustains Allen’s interest, and ours. And that’s something that can’t be said of more than two or three Allen pictures from the last 20 years
The idea? A hopeless nostalgist, Hollywood screenwriter and fledgling novelist Gil (Owen Wilson, who has a “West Coast” (Allen’s phrase) way of loosening up Allen’s standard-issue, put-upon dreamer) is on vacation with his shrewish fiance (game Rachel McAdams, doing what she can in a tiring role). One night, alone on the Paris streets, an elegant 1920s Peugeot limousine pulls up and a glamorous-looking couple beckons him inside.
They are Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who eventually introduce Gil to several other of his revered Jazz Age heroes and heroines, among them Ernest Hemingway; Salvador Dali; Gertrude Stein; and an unknown (fictional) mistress of various artists, including Pablo Picasso. The “art groupie” and aspiring costume designer is played by Marion Cotillard. Her character lives in her own yearning for an earlier era, the 1890s.
We all wish we were somewhere else sometimes. Allen’s work often seems stuck, not just in the past, but in a resentful rut. This one’s different, and better, and livelier. The past is a mirage; we must make the present our home, the best one we can.
The midday press screening of “Midnight in Paris” preceded a press conference, during which Allen — like many an American-made Cannes regular before him, from Quentin Tarantino on down — went out of his way to note that “in France, you can find great respect for cinema as art.” Whereas in America, “it’s a moneymaking industry.”
For a long time, Allen said at the press conference, he had a title for his film and nothing else. That title “suggested an enormous amount of romance.” Then he pulled a time-travel notion out of his head (akin to his short story “The Kugelmass Episode,” in which a modern-day New Yorker has a fling with Flaubert’s Emma Bovary) and developed a working script. Similar in appeal to Steve Martin’s play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” “Midnight in Paris” has piquant fun horsing around with historical figures, such as Dali, played by a droll Brody. Beyond that, Allen said, “I just wanted Paris to look very beautiful,” lighted by his trademark golden-autumn color palette.
His next film, like this one, will pay tribute to a great city (Rome). First came New York, a lot of it; then London, for “Match Point” among others; then Barcelona, for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”; and now “Midnight in Paris.”
He considers himself “a completely lucky filmmaker,” said Allen, who “never considered himself to be an artist.” He makes films often, and quickly. And, he said, as this year’s Cannes poster showcasing classic Faye Dunaway looked down upon the man in the black horn-rims, “some of them come out good.”