Born of a concept that has been distilling for close to 50 years, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris represents the finest work of all involved in some time. From Owen Wilson’s frustrated, dreamy romantic lead, Gil Spender, to Adrien Brody’s exhilarating turn as Salvador Dali, to Darius Khondji’s luscious camerawork (if it were possible, you'd swear the images have been filtered through rich, dark chocolate), Allen’s film is literate, languid, sharply satirical, soulfully beautiful. Longtime admirers of the auteur will be glad to know that it's also very funny.
In the late 1960s, Allen had audiences in stitches with his routine 'The Lost Generation’. In it, he recounts a trip to Paris where he befriended Ernest Hemingway, got punched in the mouth by Gertrude Stein, critiqued Picasso’s latest work (a picture of a naked dental hygenist in the middle of the Gobi Desert) and stayed on at F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s wild New Year’s Eve party til April. Midnight in Paris is a feature film version of this precise and brilliantly-performed bit, infused with the sensibilities of an older, wiser observer.
Allen has openly embraced European culture and centred his work there for close to 10 years. His adoration for the French capital, both as it exists today and as it was in the 1920s, fills every frame. This is not to suggest, though, that Allen has lost any of his finely-honed cynicism and acidic wit. One of the most satisfying aspects of Midnight in Paris is the subtle skewering he affords the loud, shallow American stereotypes (slyly brought to life by Rachel McAdams as Wilson’s fiancé Inez and Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy as her parents) and the insufferably pretentious Brit (Michael Sheen, teeth-grindingly horrid as know-it-all Paul).
Allen’s take on romanticism and melancholy is also tempered by the suggestion that reminiscence can be both glorious and dangerously indulgent, and that yearning for an unattainable past only serves to undermine the joys of the present. The film’s first half is wonderful as Gil, wide-eyed and full of joie de vivre, crosses paths with Hemingway (an excellent Corey Stoll), Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill), Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Stein (Kathy Bates), Alice B. Toklas (Thérèse Bourou-Rubinsztein), Cole Porter (Yves Heck) and Joséphine Baker (Sonia Rolland), among many others. Allen allows himself a 'Back to the Future’ moment when Gil meets famed surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) and plants the seed of the concept that would later become The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie... and the director doesn’t get it.
The sadness of Gil’s malaise soon manifests, ultimately personified by Adriana, the luminescent lover of Hemingway and Picasso and who adores Gil, fleetingly, on the eve of the Belle Epoque. As played by Marion Cotillard (surely the most beautiful and talented actress of her generation), Adriana embodies the essence of a muse, and the final scenes between Gil and her are heartbreakingly sweet.
Midnight in Paris is one of Woody Allen’s best films. Call it a fantasy or a rom-com or a satire or a travelogue – with this film, Allen’s fearlessness declares he is past whatever label people place on his work. If you still feel the need, call it a love story – with a city, a memory, an art and a self.
Watch 'Midnight in Paris'
Monday 18 January, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Thursday 21 January, 7:45am on SBS World Movies
Sunday 24 January, 6:45pm on SBS World Movies
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Fantasy
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Léa Seydoux