What a tribute to the exquisiteness of a city, to her heritage and history, her role as seductress and custodian of talent and artistic expression throughout the centuries. The opening montage alone proves the film the work of an unabashed Francophile. Written and directed by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris is one part the story of a man’s love of Paris and his personal struggle to free himself of a life he has built on one continent but to which in another continent he now finds himself a slave – the very undercurrent, funny enough, of my own life five years ago. The second part of the story speaks to themes like the romanticism of life and of history and of culture through the lens of a Francophile and his unbridled attraction to a Paris that once was.
The plot is a simple one, in line with the classic Woody Allen style. The complications and plot diversions we find in a Christopher Nolan film are bleakly absent in Allen’s dialogue and narrative compulsion. But Allen was never about those types of films. Allen has built his career on an exploration of raw human relationships, their emotional connections to human surroundings, and the superficial script we all write and create about our own lives which eases its continuation, rendering it bearable, if not the much more hoped for enjoyable.
Gil, our protagonist, is a screenwriter from L.A. who has developed his career half by chance and half by talent toward a lucrative position as a writer-for-hire in Hollywood. In the process, Gil has met and fallen in love with Inez, a wealthy businessman’s daughter, a “pseudo-intellectual” of whom we know comparatively little except that she counts herself built of better stuff than Gil in almost every sense imaginable, save for bringing home the bacon.
We meet these characters in Paris on a pre-wedding holiday with Inez’s parents where Gil revisits the city of his stolen past. Gil once wanted to be a writer, a novelist, a real writer as he describes it, before he made it into the studio limelight as a screenwriter; yet he gave up that dream in pursuit of success. Now that he has obtained his monetary and prestigious ambitions, he wants to move back to Paris and complete the novel he’s been struggling for some time to master.
Enter the theme of romanticized history. Gil is fascinated by the Paris of the 1920s (as I am); he considers it the Golden Age of art and literature and culture and especially of Paris. He glorifies it as the artist’s seat of some of the best writer’s American literature has ever known. During the Roaring 20s, Paris was, after all, home to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein (Kathy Bates), Eliot, Faulkner as well as a revolutionizing generation of artists and musicians like Cole Porter, Jean Cocteau, Josephine Baker and Salvador Dali (Adrian Brody). Through some stroke of magic, as the clock of the Sacré Coeur strikes midnight, a time continuum opens up and transports Gil back into his coveted 1920s Paris. Here he meets his heroes of the literary and artistic realms. He visits Gertrude Stein’s salon, which in real life was situated on a small street in Saint Germain just a few step from the jardin Luxembourg, with Hemingway and overhears Picasso describing one of this now-famous paintings. The subject of this newest masterpiece is Adriana (Marion Cotillard). As the most recent lover of Picasso, former love of Modigliani, apprentice to Coco Chanel and future lover of Hemingway, Adriana is the muse that opens Gil’s eyes to his mismatched union with his fiancée, Inez.
The evident nature of the fiancés sour connection is painfully evident to the audience from the second scene of the film. Gil is, however, less receptive to the signs. I sympathize with Gil as I was once much like him: having achieved a certain success I’d set out to attain, I found myself in an engagement of little sense, a position I’d placed myself in by omission and ambivalence, and no longer wanting any of the fruits of my work. Many “big red signs” went up over the six months before I called it all off trying in vain to tell me I was making a giant mistake. But, like Gil, I saw things clearly when I was ready to open my eyes, not a moment before.
Adriana develops the romanticized history theme a little further by yearning for la Belle Époque. Gil, of course, being from 2010 idolizes Paris of the 1920s. Adriana, being of the 1920s, pines for an even earlier period, the years surrounding the turn of the century. The Belle Époque is generally thought of as the years between 1880 and 1910. This was another time of extraordinary artistic achievement in Paris.
Traveling together from the 1920s to la Belle Époque, Adriana and Gil meet Degas and Rodin, who himself thinks the Renaissance was the time of great artistic achievement rather than the Belle Époque. Meanwhile, questions of the grass as greener and the impossibility of human contentment slide under the audience’s conscious radar.
Adriana and Gil, through their travels in the 1890s and 1920s, go to parties at Drouot, represented during the Roaring Years as a taxidermist’s dream with stuffed bears and peacocks and lions covering the floor. Drouot is today the most famous and reputable auction house in Paris, the Christie’s of France. The transgenerational couple then go to Maxim’s in the Belle Époque, now a famous relic of Parisian nightlife which for more than a century has reigned over the Parisian soirée and hosted the who’s who of Paris.
Back in modern-day Paris, Gil’s father-in-law, a stereotypical American businessman, self-proclaimed anti-Francophile, hires a private investigator to track down where Gil disappears to every night. Suspicious of Gil’s infidelity, Father-in-law is hoping for some hard evidence to pry his daughter away from what he sees as an inappropriate match. The investigator is played by a well-known French comedian and actor, Gad Elmaleh. Other French stars play small roles in the film including French First Lady, Carla Bruni, as the Rodin Museum tour guide and letter reader. It might seem strange to our American sensibilities to think of Michelle Obama or Laura Bush’s counterpart accepting a role in a Hollywood film. (A documentary, perhaps. But Hollywood? We haven’t seen that since Reagan and even then it was well before his political years.) But then again the French are much more ‘live and let live,’ laissez-faire with their celebrities than us Americans. They don’t much mind what they do with their own time.
Midnight in Paris highlights the best Paris has to offer. Here are some fun tidbits. The film opens in Monet’s house in Giverny not far outside of Paris where the painter’s inspiration for the Water Lilies still blossoms beautifully every spring. A little later on in the film, the eight large Water Lily paintings are strolled by and admired in L’Orangerie museum. The hotel where Inez and her family are staying, Hotel Bristol, is one of the finest five-star hotels in Paris with a three Michelin star restaurant called the Epicure. Not far down the road is the Palais de l’Elysee, the French White House or 10 Downing Street which also just so happens to be the same palace that was built for Madame de Pompadour, the Sun King’s greatest mistress. The wine tasting took place on the roof of Hotel Maurice, another five-star hotel located practically in front of the Louvre and next to Angelina’s, a delightful Belle Epoque café where you can sip the most exquisitely rich hot chocolate in Paris. Inez and her mom walk along the Place de Vendome when they are looking for jewelry. In Paris, the Place de Vendome is the Fifth Avenue of fine jewelry and home of the Ritz Hotel. Finally, as day fades into night, Gil walks along the Seine and looks up at the sparkling Eiffel Tour. Here we know we’re in the heart of Paris.
Making a film about Paris is not as easy as it may appear regardless of the picturesque backdrop. So many stereotypes exist about both Frenchmen and Americans that they must be touched upon with humor and grace. Allen handled them with tactic and poise. Americans at a table in a fine restaurant jump up to greet unexpected friends making a loud and disruptive scene – a typical, if lighthearted, French stereotype of Americans. Another is the agitation the dog in the arms of a man at a neighboring table causes the father-in-law who is put off by the uncleanliness of it all. Even after several years, I have only just gotten used to seeing dogs in laps and under tables in French restaurants.
The film is a blithe tribute to Paris as present beauty and past inspiration. Taken as such, the audience can appreciate an enjoyable ninety minutes of entertainment. What the plot lacks in substance and originality, it makes up for in scenery and cinematography. Yet, the script wants for depth and strikes a false cord in many scenes between Rachel Adams’ Inez and Owen Wilson’s Gil. On the whole, we feel as if we’re watching a play, beautifully set mind you, but nevertheless scripted to the point of overkill and over-acted. Stereotypical characterizations of Hemingway and Dali are amusing but destroy any possible emotional connection the audience would create with the characters. Of course, this is all classic Allen. And perhaps it’s just me but I feel that I’ve seen Owen Wilson play this part many times before (think Marley & Me). I found him funny and even sweet at times, but superficial and unattainable all the same.
Marion Cotillard, on the other hand, is the bright star of the film. Her performance is radiant and engaging. We fall in love with Adriana almost as deeply as we fall in love with Paris all over again.