The Greener Pastures of Paris, by David Bax
Just a few minutes into Woody Allen’s new comedy, Midnight in Paris, I was already starting to feel sure I was going to hate it. The film begins with a long (really long) series of images of the City of Lights, with a backing soundtrack of the 1920’s jazz variety that Allen is known for. The locales Allen and his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, chose to film for this section are the very definition of predictable. The Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysees, Notre Dame, that one really cool bridge over the Seine; these shots are no different from what you’ve seen in countless postcards or in the pages of travel magazines. In essence, Woody Allen is presenting to you the version of Paris you would see if you found a great deal on Travelocity.
Once the story kicked in, I was only more convinced this was going to be a shallow and out-of-touch bourgeois travelogue. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a successful screenwriter on vacation with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Gil is leaving behind the shallow pursuits of Hollywood to write a novel and, at the film’s start, he’s wandering around with Inez, looking at water lilies on a pond and whining about the romantic pull of Paris. He is considering staying there to write, giving up his affluent life in California because of the way the streets look in the rain or some such nonsense. It was really annoying.
The first respite from this world I was already tiring of came with the addition of Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda as Inez’s pretentious, pseudo-intellectual friends, Paul and Carol. The next couple of scenes, an extended double-date that Paul dominates by showing off his expertise at every available turn, are hilarious and finally revealed the spark of wry wit we want from Allen. Paul is the character Marshall McLuhan tells off in Annie Hall, except you’re stuck all day with him at Versailles.
So just as I was settling into to watch an agreeably funny but thematically juvenile film, the story took a turn. Allen has apparently made the uncharacteristic decision to keep the main plot of Midnight in Paris a secret and I’m not going to be the one to ruin his fun, mostly because not knowing where things were going gave me great pleasure while watching. I’ll say only that Allen has created a fanciful and whimsical tale without being the least bit cloying. The crushing banality of the location shooting and the Paris-lionizing of the early scenes were unquestionably of deliberate artistic intent, as we realize that this is a story about the stories we tell ourselves, the fables of a better place and a better way of life we try to convince ourselves exist somewhere, if we could only reach them.
Allen’s thoroughly charming film and script are helped along by the aforementioned Khondji, whose lush frames are warm and enveloping throughout, and by a stellar and game cast. Tom Hiddleston, so recently fantastic in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, is magnetic here. Alison Pill is lovely and enchanting. Kathy Bates plays her character, Gert, in such a way that you want to stay with her when the film moves on. Carla Bruni is funny and down to earth. Adrien Brody is inspired in his one, exuberantly comical scene. Corey Stoll, an actor with whom I was heretofore unfamiliar, commands the screen as Ernest, the ringleader of sorts of the people Gil meets in his late night Paris strolls. And then there is Marion Cotillard. After winning an Oscar for her great performance in a pedestrian biopic (La Vie en Rose), she went on to populate American screens in a couple of roles as symbolic objects of beauty but not real characters (Michael Mann’s underappreciated Public Enemies, Christopher Nolan’s over-appreciated Inception). Here, in another dreamlike role, she is a compatriot in sadness and wanderlust to Gil, both a guide for him as he burrows deeper into the film’s rabbit hole, and a fully inhabited person unto herself. That she shares motivations with our protagonist does not mean that her fate is tied to his and that’s the best thing about the screenplay.
The worst thing about the screenplay is the film’s other major female character, Inez. Though Rachel McAdams is clearly as eager as the rest of the players, Allen refuses to define her with anything but negativity and antagonism to Gil. Even this dreamer would at least be alert enough in his waking life to realize how horrible she is. By the time Gert points out to him his own blindness where Inez is concerned, it’s already too late to be funny.
With Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen has created a fable of sorts, a parable about a boy who was sure the grass was greener on the other side and went over there only to find out that the sole difference between his life and everyone else’s is that he had control and could change. There’s no real happiness in daydreaming; the only chance at happiness is to try and make those daydreams come true.