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Friday, 14 March 2014

Paul : The distinction of being not just a bore, but a boor

This is a review of Midnight in Paris (2011)

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This is a review of Midnight in Paris (2011)

People have, apparently, likened this film to Manhattan (1979), which they mean in a back-handed way, as saying that Allen has returned to form, but this view is wrong on two counts: Allen may have made occasional recent films (e.g. Match Point (2005)) that do not work (or only work clunkily), but he has never lost his form; and Midnight has almost nothing, opening montage excepted, in common with Manhattan (or, for that matter, Annie Hall (1977), the other chosen point of comparison – why choose two films made more than thirty years ago ?).

Taking each point in turn, there is nothing to be apologetic about in either Whatever Works (2009), perfectly suiting Larry David, or You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), although probably less successful for reasons of plot – Midnight is not a welcome recovery, but simply surpasses them both.

The wide situational and character sweep of Midnight is also nothing like that of Annie or Manhattan, which are arguably more like chamber music than this piece, which, if not a symphony, has clear claims on being a concerto.

In addition, it is not as if Paris has not been the backdrop before, unless people have already forgotten Everyone Says I Love You (1996), and it is common knowledge that Allen is truly American in feeling the French capital’s charm and attraction – just as he does London’s very different pull.

Midnight is not perfect, either, but there are some very good elements to it, some of which look back in the canon: for example, the lead character, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), has definite similarities, not just in mannerisms and pacing, with Kenneth Branagh as fellow writer Lee Simon in Celebrity (1998). Such figures, if not Allen-substitutes per se in the films in which he does not (choose to) cast himself, function in the same pivotal sort of way, and often have the pick of the lines. Taking that further, Lee, as does Gil, finds himself in an exciting new world that he does not know, but it is one of elitism and opportunity – Gil has opportunity, perhaps, but of a different kind..

The film feels very close to Allen’s short stories, and he very casually has Gil enter the world of the 1920s by being offered a lift, when he is lost, by a group of revellers in a vintage Peugeot: nothing overt in this transition, except for the bubbles in the champagne that they insist that Gil join them in drinking, and he is taken he and we know not where.

Thankfully, we can get away from regarding the scenario as magical realism (whatever it may be, though it little matters). For Gil not only gives us the benefit (probably partly because he is tired after an evening of wine-tasting, in which he favoured quantity over quality) of letting us be several steps ahead, but also because, just because of the dramatic irony, we can watch his reactions of disbelief more closely. (As the film goes on, they may, however, do Allen fewer favours : how few even know that Eliot’s initials stand for Thomas Stearns, let alone would blurt out the names ?)

Yes, it is just a given that this travel to the earlier decade happens, and that, although Gil can repeat the experience, he cannot explain it to anyone in his own time. (As is usual, e.g. Lucy first visiting Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.) Yet it is never just a shared magical assumption about the nature of the world, unless one includes the viewer.

The feel of the era is good, which, when this is not an art-historical recreation, is what matters, but Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) could still have had a chance to shine more with a less functional role (which may have fallen prey to editing): after all, Stein herself was no mere editor or midwife to other’s creations, and was just as much a character as Hemingway and Dalí, in particular, are shown to be. (As to whether she would have called them ‘crazy Surrealists’, one is less sure.)

With Adriana (Marion Cotillard), one is less sure whether it is that she gives Gil attention (which Inez (Rachel McAdams), though she is also sexy, seems less keen to do), as that she can claim Modigliani and Braque as lovers (in this film, at least), that draw him to her company : let alone the t.v. series, Goodnight, Sweetheart dealing with such a theme, it is at the centre of The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and Allen’s early story ‘The Kugelmass Episode’ (first collected in Side Effects).

As a parable of what one can and cannot have, Paris of the 1920s may be where Gil would have himself be, but he has not foreseen that it might not be everyone’s choice, and he finds himself making other choices for the future instead.

Where the film really does not work is with facts about the contemporary literary and artistic circles, and, if one were the ‘pseudo-intellectual’ whom Gil dubs the very irritating character of Paul (who is of a type whom Allen likes creating, and does so well*), one would have had them to hand in the screening :

Not that it matters, because it may be that all this is Gil’s imagination, and that he is capable of being confused about facts as even Paul (who apparently confounds the figures of Rodin’s wife and mistress, and then insists that the guide is wrong**): if so, then, as with a dream, or as with psychosis (the explanation offered by Inez for Gil’s behaviour and utterances), what he experiences is the product of his will and mind.

In a dream, it is just as much we who are in the dream, creating the people whom we meet, be they Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, or Papa Hemingway (obviously not then called that, but that is how Gil relates to the man whom he has met). One curiosity is that, except for the party to which Gil is first taken, everyone is dressed much more casually than photographs show was usual at that time. Another is that, when it comes to Buñuel, Allen has made him a rather sullen character, and with no suggestion, around the table, that Dalí and he are – or are to be – film-makers together (in Un Chien Andalou (1929). Largely as a private joke, because few might know the reference, Allen has Gil give Buñuel the essential details of the plot of The Exterminating Angel (1962) (which are also supposed to be dealt with in a scene within L’Age d’Or), but Buñuel rebuff him with very unreceptive questions about why that would or would not happen – as if he has not got a Surrealist bone in his body.

This does not seem to suggest that we believe that Gil is dreaming, even if what he experiences is a deep wish on his part, but rather that too much licence has been taken with showing this period, probably in an attempt not to confront an audience with the truth, that the free and easy Surrealists and other artists of the time were to be found in suit and tie.


* E.g. Alan Alda as Lester in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). (Alda is also in Everyone Says.)

** However, it seems that Rodin did nothing as bourgeois as intending that either woman – let alone any of the others ! – could contemporaneously claim to be married to him: it was only after knowing Rose Beuret for 53 years that, in 1917, the year in which they both died (she just two weeks afterwards), they married.

By then, Camille Claudel, the other woman, had already been confined to a psychiatric unit for more than twenty years, following a breakdown when Rodin and she split up in 1898, and died there in 1943.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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