It is a pity the title An American in Paris had already been taken because it would have suited Midnight in Paris, a film about American writer Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) who is seduced by the French capital while visiting with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams). The opening of the film is similar to one of Allen’s all time greats, Manhattan (1979), with its loving montage of Paris in all its glory. Throughout the film Allen shows us not only the city’s tourist locations, but also takes us to must-visit out-of-the-city destinations such as Versailles and Monet’s gardens in Giverny. Then there are all the warmly lit shots of the cafes, restaurants, gardens and shops. However, the film really gets going once its extraordinary cast of characters, including the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard), begin to be introduced.
For most of his career Allen made films about New York, but recently he has used London, Barcelona and now Paris as his cities of inspiration. Midnight in Paris is a continuation of his new interest in Europe and also something of a return to older material. Not only does the central idea originate from an early stand-up routine that Allen used to perform in the 1960s, but there is also a pseudo-intellectual character Paul (Michael Sheen), who is something of an extension of the pontificating Marshall McLuhan expert who memorably gets his comeuppance in Annie Hall (1977). While darker films like Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Match Point (2005) have been the highlights from the later part of Allen’s career, Midnight in Paris is his most charming, romantic and funny film in a long time.
As Gil is obsessed with Paris in the 1920s being the creative centre of the universe, the main theme of the film is it’s naive to believe that the past is better than the present. Nostalgia is simply a form of denial. Everybody is disillusioned about their current lives, but yearning for a romanticised previous era is simply a way of not living your life to the fullest. Yet, it is difficult not to wonder if Allen’s critique about romanticising the past should also be extended to romanticising cities that you have only visited as opposed to have actually lived in. Midnight in Paris does reveal some of the annoyances that come with being in Paris, but they are all through the eyes of Inez’s conservative and close-minded parents, suggesting no real engagement with the idea that Gil’s idealised view of the city is perhaps naive. On the other hand, maybe Allen simply wants the audience to figure it out for themselves and would rather focus on enjoying the city and its large cast of characters rather than getting too introspective. After all, the film’s critique of nostalgia is hardly a major revelation and Allen even has Gil acknowledge in the film that it is a minor point.
The pleasures of Midnight in Paris are going along with Gil for the ride, sharing his enthusiasm for Paris and following the film’s literally and artistic references. Audiences who are well read and have an interest in the arts will get the most enjoyment from this film, not that any of the references are particularly obscure. In an era when mainstream cinema is increasingly being dumbed down, seeing a feel-good film that rewards its audience for being intelligent and cultured is something to be treasured.
Thomas Caldwell, 2011
Double pass giveaway closed – congratulations to Natalie (Redfern NSW), Thomas (Footscray VIC), Jennifer (Carlton North VIC), Nicholas (Teneriffe QLD) and Karl (Collingwood VIC). Sorry to those who missed out on this occasion.