[Review] Midnight in Paris (Allen, 2011)
Woody Allen has never made a film worthy of enshrinement in the Pantheon. Annie Hall? Not quite. Manhattan? Close. His early comedies? Closer. Purple Rose of Cairo? The closest. However, no discussion of late-20th Century film is complete without mention of his personality, his formidable output, his Bergmanesque preoccupations, and his style. Indeed, maybe he has made so many ‘nearly good-enoughs’ with such panache and duty that he will last forever. We look at Midnight in Paris, another movie that no one else could have made, and the feeling is only strengthened.
Allen must have been waiting to shoot the opening montage of this film since he made Manhattan. It is a portrait of Paris no painter could have done. Full, gorgeous, serene, textured, candid glimpses of the great city of light. Midnight is undoubtedly the most visually mature Allen picture. The deep and bold tones illuminate the magic and skin, enough to make you yearn for Rachel McAdams’ Inez (Sartre reference anybody?) while she is terrorizing every scene she inhabits as the most unforgiving witch of 2011. Midnight also makes clear that Allen has matured so much as a writer, always his best skill. It is his most visually expressive script after Deconstructing Harry or possibly Match Point. I’ve often wondered how his writing might illuminate the work of a director other than himself – a Coen or a Scorcese.
As the Woody-Hero enters Golden Age Paris, we begin to discern the obligatory fable. But in Midnight there is something else twisted in from Owen Wilson’s performance. The look on his face before submitting to the fantasy is striking; more striking is to what he eventually submits. It’s exactly what makes Midnight the best Allen work since Cairo. Gil subdues himself to a will other than his own. He relents. This is remarkable in the history of Allen stand-ins. Allen imbues Wilson (a likely puppet) with his own jittery aimlessness, but also commitment and less ego. Wilson takes these revolutionary Allen traits and creates a Woody-Hero that is so fresh and so likable. Something we have never seen before.
The cameos inside of Golden Age Paris are magnificent, if fleeting. Adrien Brody’s Dali is better than you can imagine and Hemingway is a bright caricature. It is hard to describe the genuine treat of seeing these wonderful heroes of the past in such color. One thing we can always grant Allen is his steadfast ability to employ his fables for a double meaning. Yes, there is joy in Midnight, joy is one of the new and exciting characteristics. But his pessimism is not so far away. In taking us one layer deeper into the Belle Epoque, we understand his point. It’s impossible to be happy. Even our dreams of real happiness are false. We imbue times and figures with an unquestioned brilliance. Allen shows us that these feelings are no better than Paris in the rain. Gil’s speech about a city being a work of art creates another poignant conclusion. It is Allen reconciling the Hollywood Hack (non-art) with the novelist (art), to understand that beauty is beauty. A rhinoceros is a rhinoceros.
There are flaws. Allen creates so many incredible characters and barely employs them. His haste is his error. In some cases, it ends in crude or abrupt plot developments. Midnight could have been 20 minutes longer and it would have been a better picture, possibly one for the Pantheon.
But Allen has created another work of wit, charm, and poignancy. It doesn’t escape his obsessive pessimism, but it does show us a side of him that we have never seen. One not cloaked in hateful sarcasm. One not bleak or humorless. Not so relentless. Midnight allowed his humor to be real. So maybe we will always remember Woody for his winding career. As there are peaks and valleys, it is safe to say that here we have a marvelous peak and perhaps the highest.