Owen Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter on vacation in Paris who wishes he could escape back to the 1920s. David Edelstein says his performance is one of the finest by a lead in a Woody Allen film — and rivals many of Allen's performances, too. Roger Arpajou /Sony Picture Classics hide caption
Owen Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter on vacation in Paris who wishes he could escape back to the 1920s. David Edelstein says his performance is one of the finest by a lead in a Woody Allen film — and rivals many of Allen's performances, too.Roger Arpajou /Sony Picture Classics
Woody Allen isn't religious, but he has a rabbinical side, and over the past decade his films have become more and more like Talmudic parables for atheists. On the surface, these movies are streamlined, even breezy, and they often have voice-over narration to get the pesky exposition out of the way fast. Philosophically, Allen has settled on resignation, a cosmic shrug: There's no God, no justice, people are inconstant, life is meaningless — so where do you wanna eat?
'All Dressed Up'
'All Dressed Up'
'He's a Pseudo-Intellectual'
'He's a Pseudo-Intellectual'
'I'm Not A Big Francophile'
'I'm Not A Big Francophile'
I have a problem, though, buying into the worldview of someone whose world is a closed ecosystem. There's no evidence that Allen lets any contemporary culture penetrate his hard, defensive shell. Music stopped in the '40s, if not earlier, ditto literature, ditto film — with a pass for select European directors. He seems locked in a daydream of the past.
The good news is that Allen has made the lure of nostalgia the theme of his supernatural comedy Midnight in Paris, which might be why this is his best, most emotionally pure film in over a decade. It's a romantic fantasy that's also a sly act of self-criticism.
The time-traveling hero, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, is a successful Hollywood screenwriter on holiday in Paris with his brisk, upwardly mobile fiancee, Inez, played by Rachel McAdams. Gil considers himself a hack and, to Inez's horror, wants to write novels instead of movies. How he wishes he could be a writer in Paris — better yet, Paris in the '20s, alongside Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and all those other giants living high yet creating enduring works of art.
You can almost hear the familiar Woody Allen cadences in the film, yet Owen Wilson isn't the usual East Coast intellectual Allen hero, and he makes the lines his own. Apart from Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo, this is the finest lead performance in an Allen film that wasn't by Allen — and finer than many of Allen's, too. You sense the vein of wistfulness under his stoner cool, the longing for definition behind his spaciness. It's a thrilling moment when he sits forlornly on some steps in the rain at midnight, a vintage automobile rumbles by, the champagne-swilling occupants invite him in, and he's suddenly back in the '20s.
Owen Wilson, playing the time-traveling hero Gil, wants to write novels instead of movies, much to the horror of his fiancee Inez, played by Rachel McAdams. Roger Arpajou/Sony Picture Classics hide caption
Owen Wilson, playing the time-traveling hero Gil, wants to write novels instead of movies, much to the horror of his fiancee Inez, played by Rachel McAdams.Roger Arpajou/Sony Picture Classics
How? No explanation. Allen just breezes past all that, the way he did in Purple Rose and, before that, in his great 1970s short story, "The Kugelmass Episode," happily eliminating the sci-fi wheels and pulleys that tend to suck up so much screen time. Gil is just there — counseling Scott about Zelda, drinking with Hemingway, showing parts of his novel to Gertrude Stein, and falling in love with a woman named Adriana, played by a stunningly beautiful Marion Cotillard. Adriana bonds with Gil over his love of the past — except the past she loves is the 1890s and not her vulgar present. His '20s ideal woman hates the '20s — a bitter irony.
Allen doesn't do anything interesting with Scott and Zelda — my guess is he's too in awe of them. But his Hemingway, played with forthright manly-manliness by Corey Stoll, is a riot; and as Gertrude Stein, Kathy Bates proves that in an absurd context, playing it straight can make you funnier than a thousand clowns.
Midnight in Paris is a doodle, but it's easy and graceful, and its ambivalent view of nostalgia has all kinds of resonance. As I watched, I felt a different sort of nostalgia: not for the Parisian '20s but for the days in which Allen regularly turned out freewheeling, pitch-perfect tall tales in print and onscreen. The movie is so good it takes you back to those days, which were the days, my friend.
Midnight in Paris
- Director: Woody Allen
- Genre: Comedy, Romance
- Running Time: 88 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking
With: Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Owen Wilson, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody
Gertrude Stein was a wealthy American art collector and writer who – by her own account in The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas – dominated the Paris avant garde in the days of Picasso. She was undoubtedly one of Picasso's boldest collectors, his only real female friend (her being gay got him past his normally tyrannous libido) and the object of one of his most revolutionary paintings. Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein, which hangs on her wall in the film, gives her the face of a stone idol. She wears a mask of her own in her modernist literary classic that portrays herself through the eyes of her lover Alice B Toklas. Stein embodies, in her own writings and Picasso's painting, the severity of high modernism.
Ernest Hemingway needs no introduction if you see the film because in it he speaks as he writes, in bold, authoritative sentences that contrast hilariously with hero Owen Wilson's flaccid Californian English. It was Hemingway who truly created a modern American voice in literature, tough, heightened yet direct, and he had to go to Paris with its bohemian freedom to do it. In his first scene in the film he asks Owen Wilson if he can box – Hemingway was a man's man – and he is last seen, drunk, pleading for someone to fight him.
F Scott Fitzgerald's novel Tender is the Night is the most haunting account of the international culture of 1920s France. The film however does not get far beyond his tragic marriage to Zelda – once the subject of an old Woody Allen joke about the Zelda Fitzgerald Award for Emotional Maturity. Wilson's meeting with them is one of the film's funniest moments as, fresh from the future and not yet knowing he has time travelled, he puzzles over the coincidence that a man who happens to be named F Scott Fitzgerald also happens to have a wife called Zelda.
Picasso and Matisse, the two greatest artists of the 20th century, flit in and out of Stein's salon in the film, just as they did in life. Picasso is young and intense, Matisse more like an old professor – just as in life. Picasso painted his most revolutionary works in the 1900s and 1910s. His portrait of Gertrude Stein is one of the works in which he created the abstractionist freedom of modern art. In the 1920s, as the film wittily shows, he was in a second golden period, painting visceral images of sex.
The American modernist exiles glimpsed in the film include the novelist Djuna Barnes, whose novel Nightwood was hailed as a modern masterpiece by TS Eliot, as well as Eliot himself, St Louis-born author of The Waste Land. There's a funny contrast of Eliot's beautiful use of the English language - "I should have been a pair of ragged claws ..." with contemporary Californian when Wilson tells Eliot his poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock "is practically my mantra".
This is also the jazz age, signalled by some of Allen's favourite jazz on the soundtrack as well as appearances by legendary dancer Josephine Baker, a hero to modern artists, and the era's definitive songwriter, Cole Porter.
In the 1920s, as the film shows, the first wave of modernist art was giving way to a more political and wilfully provocative style. The surrealist movement saw itself as putting modernism to the service of revolution. In the film it is represented by the American photographer Man Ray, the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel and, naturally, a young Salvador Dalí. In fact, the best work Dali ever did is the film Un Chien Andalou, which he created with Buñuel, a fast-moving and hilarious juxtaposition of shocking scenes from the psyche. All Dali wants to talk about is the horn of the rhinoceros.
A second time shift takes the hero back to the 1890s where he meets three of the great painters who moved beyond impressionism to create the visionary, intense works out of which modernism was born: Degas, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec are all exquisite cameos. If it only had Van Gogh and Cézanne too, Midnight in Paris would include a full history of the birth of modern art from the 1890s to 1920s. Or perhaps I missed them in the crowd.