Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Midnight in Paris (2011)

Then  After waiting and waiting and waiting for a British blu-ray release of Midnight In Paris, I eventually bought a dvd from ebay, accidentally because I thought I was using a discount code but the code failed to work. I’ve then sat on it for a couple of months, well, it’s sat on a shelf waiting until the end of the Olympics then the innumerable other some would say “projects” others might say “displacement strategies” were completed. But after receiving a copy of Woody Allen: The Documentary from Lovefilm by accident and knowing that was released after this, and since the copy of Tinker Tailer Solidier Spy then sent me is covered in scratches and unwatchable I decided that life’s too short, whatever works, and watched it tonight.  As usual, the following assumes you've seen the film already.

Now  This is probably entirely the wrong time to be writing about Midnight in Paris. For a start, the clocks are going back tonight so we’ll be having two midnights, but I’m in such a good mood, so pleased that one of my favourite directors is still capable of producing such a clever, thematically interesting, beautifully shot and properly funny (something which wasn’t the case for his last film) that’s still making me smile even as I type. When Midnight in Paris was being garlanded with awards and nominations, I did consider if there’s was a certain amount of condescending sympathy about it, that perhaps they’re simply recognising that Woody’s managed to produce something at least slightly above his usual latter average.

Well, yes, no, yes. I was wrong. From the introductory shots of Paris designed to educate the audience with his protagonist Owen Wilson’s Gil’s view that the city is at its most beautiful when its raining, we’re in the hands of the man who so deftly communicated the scene changes in Everyone Says I Love You and the then contemporary nostalgia of Manhattan. All of the elements of Woody’s style which seemed so studded and calcified in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, long scenes taking place in masters, the overlapping improvised dialogue, the massive cast of relative famous actors providing tiny cameos in non-New York locations become strengths again. This is the Woody Allen of old. Just like his character, the Paris air’s brought inspiration.

But interestingly, he manages all this by repeating the fish out of water storyline which he’s returned to throughout his career, of a character flirting or becoming addicted to some cultural aspect not their own. Going backwards, it’s what fuels Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Match Point, Celebrity, Bullets Over Broadway, Alice, The Purple Rose of Cairo and arguably Bananas. But unlike most of those films, there isn’t a tragic underpinning; while Gil loses both of his loves in the end, it’s about him gaining an education, he doesn’t really have to or even fight to keep his 1920s sojourns and there’s no suggestion at the end that he can’t go back there or won’t, even if he greets midnight on the other side of town from the portal position.

The key, I think, is that he keeps the story focus on Gil. Some of his more recent films have bloated because he’s cut away to the supporting characters. The Midnight In Paris version of that would have been to see the affair between Rachel McAdams’s Inez and Michael Sheen’s Paul (ironically since the actors are partners in real life) but with the exception of Inez’s father’s hiring of the private detective, Gil remains the audience’s viewpoint character, so we’re kept on the journey with him, never quite sure until some way into the film, if his time travel experience is some mental collapse or boozy dream. Like him, we just deliriously go along with it, typified by the moment when Woody cuts to a close-up of Gil letting the experience take hold.

Unlike Gil, we’re enjoying the double pleasure of not just meeting the 1920s Parisian icons, but the actors playing them and then marvelling at how perfectly cast they are. Of course Tom Hiddleston’s playing Scott with Alison Pill as Zelda. It’s amazing Adrien Brody hasn’t already starred in a Dali biopic (and really should on the strength of this). Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein? Of course she is. Bates incidentally previously appeared in an Allen film as a prostitute in Shadows and Fog, a film which though stylistically and thematically different, shares Midnight In Paris’s idea of a protagonist becoming lost in the streets after dark.

Like some of Woody’s other genre pieces there’s also little discussion of the mechanics of time travel. The car pulls up, Gil gets in, meets TS Elliot or whoever and is taken back in time. Sometimes he’s able to shift about unaccompanied in that time period, sometimes it disappears from him. But the diary indicates he is time travelling as does one of the director’s masterful jump cut jokes towards the end (up there with the cut to Rebecca Hall in the back of the plane in VCB). Does Gil change history? It doesn’t matter. How is he able to just bump into famous people? Not important. Plus, like Groundhog Day, it’s a strictly agnostic divine interventionist film, no Clarence the Angel pulling the strings.

The PI subplot is about the only moment which suggests changes made in editing.  It's introduced as though its going to be an element of tension, that perhaps the revelation will cause Inez's father to come between Gil and his time travelling antics.  But it does end in a joke.  Similarly the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway rather fall out of the story too, but there is a feature of Gil shifting between these "personalities" as he goes on his journey, each providing him with some new insight.  As ever, Woody's not provided a commentary and his interviews don't really tackle such technical aspects so we'll have to speculate as to what was intended.

I’ve not mentioned Marion Cotillard yet. She’s luminous, just as she always is. But what’s interesting is how her character Adriana has functionally a very similar role to the one which appeared in Inception. In that film, she was the catalyst for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb to break free from his dream world (aurally aided by La Vie En Rose sung by Edith Piaf who she played in the biopic of the same name). In Midnight in Paris, Adriana’s shift backwards to the Belle Epoque is what drives Gil to realise that the 1920s nostalgia trip he’s on might seem more exciting than 2010, but that actually what he should be doing is trying to make his modern life as satisfying by doing the things which make him happy. Whatever works, if you will.

Plus the layers of time travel suggest the layers of dreams in Inception. Obviously I’ve considered which period I’d like to travel back to and for a long while I wondered if I shouldn’t have been born in the 60s. But I also realised that I’m living at just the right moment. Having been born in the 70s, I’ve been able to watch the information age from its earliest moments in the 80s, through the development of the web, to that connection becoming hand held to everyone having access and being just old enough to keep in touch and be interested. If I’d been nearly forty-eight right now, that might not necessarily be the case. Plus I’d have to be fifty-eight now born in the 50s I’d properly enjoyed the 60s. Ack.

Time travel for me would be a tool. I wouldn’t want to live in the Elizabethen/Jacobian period, especially since I wouldn’t be a nobleman, but it would be useful to visit and grab copies of some of Shakespeare’s lost plays and fill in some of the gaps in his biography once and for all. And that’s what’s also interesting about Midnight in Paris. Gil’s no academic. He’s more interested in these figures as people rather than the ends of academic research. He’s not wanting to publish papers about these people and only really uses what he’s learned to embarrass Paul in the art gallery. Plus he’s never tempted to take advantage of his abilities to make himself rich, “only” to use his knowledge of Adriana’s feelings to seduce her.

Another thematic point of interest is how Gil’s companions treat Paris. Essentially their attitude is that it’s nice but you wouldn’t want to live there. Paul does treat it as an academic challenge. Inez prefers to live in Malibu yet is apparently interested in bettering herself by following Paul’s every word (though that’s possibly simply because she’s attracted to him). Inez’s parents enjoy everything the city has to offer and yet don’t like the French in general, the father portrayed as a right wing tea partier in one of Woody’s most political moments in some time. They’re almost analogue of how some US critics and audiences have been treating this European sojourn.

There's also much said about literature and the process of writing.  This is the film at its densest and perhaps one of the film's pleasures is the inbuilt need to rewatch and concentrate on these details.  Much of what's said, we must presume is taken from the relative writings of the various icons, the implication early on being that they're spouting what Gil's read through the idealised versions of themselves.  But what I draw from it is that if you're going to be a writer, you shouldn't be scared of what you write.  I've always worked from James Blish's question, "Who does it hurt?" Perhaps I shouldn't be to afraid to hurt people if I'm seeking a clearer truth, mostly myself.

What would be interesting to know is how the French reacted to Woody’s treatment of their language. One of the problems with his London films was that he could never quite get the local version of the language to flow quite right, the British actors often making a meal of the text. In Midnight in Paris, the text flows both ways, and there are some scenes played in florid French. Were these translated? There is a pattern in Woody’s European films that the best are about the US experience abroad, with Scoop especially being the best of the London films because of that. Perhaps Woody himself has noticed this. To Rome With Love also has some stories that follow this model.

Let’s cover some of the usual bases. Once again if you close your eyes, you can imagine some of his old repertory acting these lines. Wilson is Woody’s most obvious avatar in years. Rachel McAdams is in the Mia role. Michael Sheen’s essaying the role of Tony Roberts, even to the extent of growing a beard which mimics the one Roberts has in Play It Again, Sam. The music, rather than relying heavily on Parisian sounds, returns to his standards, with Cole Porter even becoming an important character point for Gil. Supporting artist Maurice Sonnenberg returns as “Man at Wine Tasting”, his seventh appearance in a Woody Allen film, though other than Bates he seems to be the only returning cast member.

Much like his London films, Woody’s cast some very well known local actors in tiny roles. Well, ok not Carla Bruni, who’s pretty good as the Museum Assistant (her only acting credit) and worked well in building some publicity during filming. But there’s Audrey Fleurot from Spiral as a 1920s partygoer, Gad Elmaleh as the PI, Olivier Rabourdin as Gaughan and if you glance through most of the casting on the IMDb you’ll find actors with massive long lists of screen credits in tiny roles. Like Mark Gattis in Match Point, they’re clearly just happy to have a Woody Allen film on their list of credits and a French person watching this will probably have same reaction we do to seeing Alexander Armstrong in the back of shot.

Crew wise, Darius Khondji returns as cinematographer from Anything Else and in the gap has amassed a pretty eclectic CV which includes Chéri, Funny Games U.S., My Blueberry Nights, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, The Interpreter and Wimbledon. Alisa Lepselter’s back as his editor which she’s done since Sweet and Lowdown, though interestingly she’s not credited on To Rome With Love. Financing continues the trend of independence, with some money interestingly dropping in from what looks like Catalan government’s cultural department. It’s distributed by Warner Bros in the UK too which is a forming trend, as is their under releasing of a lot of films in high definition format.

Interestingly, for most territories, Woody’s involvement is front and centre. In the UK, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger’s silhouette poster with the Windsor font was replaced with something far more generic and the director’s name didn’t appear anywhere but in the credits at the bottom. This time, Windsor’s back, we’re told, at that it’s written and directed by Woody Allen pretty prominently and the mood, Owen Wilson walking against Paris with weirdly a Van Gogh sky feels very “high brow” and particular even if a bit pecular since he’s one of the few painters who isn’t even mentioned in the film.

Midnight In Paris is now, I think, the highest grossing of his films in the US.  The film was famously released with his usual minimum distribution, but word of mouth grew and the film was effectively rereleased on nearly a thousand cinemas.  For whatever reason, the film managed to break through the usual prejudices and barriers, perhaps partially on the strength of Owen Wilson's performances, his best outside of a Wes Anderson piece, but mostly because it's so damn good.  It's done well enough that Woody's Untitled Project for this year was shot in California.  It’s once again possible for a distributor to make Woody’s participation a benefit. Good.

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