Saturday, January 7, 2012

14. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)

I found much to adore in this charming Woody Allen fantasy, because I have similar daydreams and yearnings, but I was continually annoyed they were put inside the head of such a lightweight, uninteresting and frankly unbelievable protagonist. Owen Wilson plays a young but spoiled Hollywood screenwriter -- the kind who can complain about picking up a handsome paycheck for crap rewrite jobs and seriously daydream about chucking it all to live in a garret, writing the great expatriate American novel... the kind who admits he isn't sure if he can even write a novel, yet has 400 pages ready to show Gertrude Stein when he finds himself magically transported back to the arts scene in 1920s Paris. Somehow, though we never see him pick up a pencil or peck at a laptop or learn more than a word or two of French, this epoch means everything to him. He's the trademark Woody Allen stand-in, a NEW YORKER sketch of writerly angst dashed off by a writer who has seldom dealt with anything but carte blanche, perhaps a bit wimpier in his anxiety and less biting in wit than those Allen actually played.

Aside from him, and the painfully obvious storyline about him being engaged to the wrong girl (Rachel McAdams), which permits some equally obvious jabs at the political right courtesy of her nouveau riche crypto-fascist parents, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is a marvellously imagined fantasy -- and clearly a fantasy because this Californian time traveller wanders into a 1920s Paris sans cigarettes. But even the present tense views of the great city which open the film, photographed by Darius Khondji, are enchanting, rivalling the NYC montage that opened MANHATTAN. Inspired casting: Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, Marcial Di Fonso Bo as Pablo Picasso, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald, and French First Lady Carla Bruni as a modern day museum guide, but the film is stolen by the enchanting Marion Cotillard as an imaginary muse to a series of 1920s painters, and by the equally charming Léa Seydoux as what might be called a French nostalgia store worker, the very sort of character Wilson is supposedly writing a novel about. The inspired moments include Wilson doing the Charleston with a woman later identified as Djuna Barnes, revealing his status as a man from the future to the only three souls in 1920s Paris who can understand (Dalí, Luís Buñuel and Man Ray), and later pitching a film story to Buñuel about a party that no one is able to leave, which only leaves the young Surrealist befuddled. I'm frankly skeptical that a character like Wilson's would be aware of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, but the joke is there for the few who are, and thus so rare it must be commended.

There is a moment late in the film when Cotillard's character has her own dreams come true, and she and Wilson are transported even further back to the Belle Époque period where they meet Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas and Gaughin -- and it was here that tears came into my eyes, from the sheer accumulation of so many great names concentrated in one place. It shook me with the importance of working hard in the present. I don't accept the film's great eureka, that the present is disappointing and the grass is always greener a step further back into the past, but I can accept that living in our own time deprives us of seeing it with historical clarity; we may be living among names equally great, but they are not for us to know as such. Also, even if the present is disappointing, that's no reason to build to an ending so contrived we can see it coming from 50 kilometers away.

PSS: Note to the poster designer: Van Gogh didn't paint his "Starry Night" in Paris.

Viewed on DirecTV On Demand.

2 comments:

  1. Personally I found it a very boring movie and a not very interesting subject! I have always difficulty with movies where the main character meets historical people who became important in retrospect like in this movie! People from the past seldom are aware of their historic importance because they are living in that time and energy and take it for granted as normal. It is only later when the energies have changed that they become historical important. For example in 50 years people then will decide if Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg,... and all the others have importance to movie history like the autors in the movie have now but certainly not in their time and era!

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  2. Tim, I will have to watch this just for the sheer curiosity of seeing Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali. ;) Starry night was painted by Van Goh while he was in an Asylum at Saint-Remy.Ha Ha! Clever Bunuel reference.

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