Here’s something you don’t normally read when deciding what summer movie to see: the most buzzed-about film of the new season comes from Woody Allen. Midnight in Paris is not exactly typical summer blockbuster fare; there are no car chases, explosions, or gun battles. Instead, the spectator is treated to a fine ensemble of beyond-excellent actors in delicious character bits, sumptuous camera work by Darius Khondji (Evita, Funny Games), and a script that crackles with a wistfully-nostalgic wit and energy that only a seasoned director like Allen can bring to the party.
Yes, Woody Allen is the man behind this literate comedy for adults in a high season of cinematic junk food. What a novel idea, to actually have legendary directors making quality summer entertainment! This debunks the traditional wisdom that summertime at the movies is just for bored kids who are not in school in every way. With Midnight in Paris, Allen presents a welcome alternative narrative to the shoot-em-up, super hero, babes-in-tight-clothes nonsense that has (unfortunately) become the standard, in a way only a true master could. The film received thunderous, overwhelmingly positive buzz coming out of the Cannes Film Festival, and is poised to be Allen’s biggest success in years, with critics already talking about Oscar nominations across the board.
One of my favorite things about cinema is watching great film directors grow in their work with age. For example, Pedro Almodovar and Mike Leigh continue to make better and better films as the years go by. To crib an anecdote told by Teri Garr to Rosanna Arquette in her documentary Searching for Debra Winger (2003), if directors were shoemakers, they would be recognized for the increasingly good craftsmanship that only age and experience can bring. Shoemakers and directors should theoretically be adept at making both shoes for people on a budget and also for people with money to burn, but the quality is always evident and present in their work. I think in this respect, Allen, at least in the past ten years, has not been given his proper due as a craftsman.
There seems to be a singularly American obsession with building up and tearing down our greatest artists and deeming their projects “failures” and “comebacks” as if art is simply that cut and dry. Allen skewers this kind of trifling expatriate behavior of insular Americans abroad and their middle-class entitlement to the biggest slice of the pie in a globalized world where American thinking insists on trumping all else. At a certain point, when the public loses their infatuation with any master’s career – artist, film director, actor, musician (usually as they age) – there seems to be a prevailing sentiment that wants to put these figures out to pasture, and then celebrate their comeback when they inevitably make another later-in-life masterpiece.
Wags the world over will be hailing Midnight in Paris as Allen’s “comeback” despite ten years of strong work with such gems as Small Time Crooks (2000) Match Point (2005), and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). However inaccurate the terms “comeback” or “return to form” might be, the sentiment is right-on this time out: Midnight in Paris is the best Allen film since Deconstructing Harry (1997). Like that acid, stinging look at relationships, love, the past and time-travel, Allen’s newest rumination on longing and death looks at life’s hardest questions about the intangible through a gently romantic, comedic lens while still remaining arch in its depictions of life’s mysteries despite the fantasy milieu. The extended, painterly opening sequence of Midnight in Paris orients the viewer to Allen’s state of mind with a whimsical travelogue of Parisian imagery and the director’s favored tinkling jazz score.
The black and white titles and “Woody Allen” font remind the spectator just who is in charge here, though Midnight in Paris, despite surface similarities to other film’s in Allen’s oeuvre such as Zelig (1983), Bullets Over Broadway (1994) or Everyone Says I Love You (1996), is magically unlike anything he’s ever done. Working within a crisp modern purview juxtaposed with a playful 1920s mise en scene, Allen’s art direction and costumes, as usual, are stunning. Art direction and set decoration, which are historically-overlooked elements of the director’s filmography, play a key role in transporting the audience into Gil’s fantasy and Anne Seibel deserves major kudos for balancing Allen’s complex, fantastic directorial vision with an ethereal groundedness in every era they visit, while costumier Sonia Grande’s elaborate period garb compliments her contemporary designs perfectly. Both women, along with Khondji for his camera work, deserve Oscar consideration for packing such a strong punch into their versatile, decades-spanning, technically-perfect work.
“You’re in love with a fantasy,” cracks the xenophobic American nightmare Inez (Rachel McAdams), which could be a perfect way to describe Allen’s rendering of Paris, of his newest characters (McAdams, Owen Wilson, Corey Stoll, Allison Pill, Kathy Bates, Mimi Kennedy and Marion Cotillard among the players), and even of his profession. “Love”, more specifically, “romance” is the key to understanding Allen’s newest film. To have love or romance, one must have passion for their object of desire, whether it is a person, a profession, a city, or art. One must be lost in these loves, consumed by these passions, in order for romance to work, in order to become intoxicated and lost in the process.
Characters such as Luis Bunuel, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso,and Gertrude Stein represent the idea of having a romance with art. Allen’s tensions around Hollywood versus true art, and his love of the greats shines through gorgeously. The director asks provocative questions about art’s relationship to commerce as well as addressing the key dichotomy of an artists’ inspirations, and how even the greatest minds often liberally borrow from the work of others, a rich tradition in Hollywood, writing, music, and art. We all travel back in time, in a sense, to borrow from one another in an ever-churning cycle of artistic time-travel. We always have those touchstones to refer to. We all have those imaginary conversations with our heroes.
“The past has always had a great charisma for me,” says Gil (a never-better Wilson), who is often dumbstruck by the icons he encounters in his voyage through time. Even though most jaded, cynical Hollywood-ite wouldn’t cop to this kind of hero worship in real-life, the way Allen highlights this facet of the character is sweet, funny, and full of heart. The concept of “hero worship” has become passé in modern popular culture, morphing into a complex, Hyrda-like hybrid where one head is that of a stalker, another the head of a sycophant, and yet another the head of an idiot, and so on. To admit admiration for one’s heroes seems to be not entirely in vogue anymore, something I don’t understand, because in my business, one’s heroes are actually made tangible. Case in point, last year at the Toronto Film Festival, I actually spoke to Allen during a press conference for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, a mythical experience not entirely unlike Gil talking to his heroes throughout Midnight in Paris.
For a kid from working class Detroit, Michigan, speaking directly to one of cinema’s great minds more than just inspired me, the encounter thoroughly sparked my own creativity, helped me to get lost in my own fantasy, made the world of great creators more concrete. For those of us who are fortunate enough to get to have a seat at the table, Midnight in Paris is especially sweet and poignant when it addresses the intersection of the mind and the heart in a tough business that often overlooks and devalues these essential elements. Allen shows us that it is not an ugly thing to have heroes and influences, and that being inspired by them while wearing your heart on your sleeve is a great tradition, not something to be ashamed of. This might not necessarily be a new message from the esteemed Mr. Allen, but it is nonetheless incredible to see that critics are actually giving him deserved credit this time out.
* * *
Midnight in Paris, the thinking-person’s summer film, is now playing in limited release.