Midnight in Paris (2011)


Not to read too much into Woody Allen’s latest amuse bouche, but the movie does look like a witty mise-en-abyme, an endless regression back in time.  Midnight in Paris proposes a witching hour when one can step into a Peugeot and drive into one man’s lost Golden Age and then climb into a carriage and enter a woman’s idea of what the perfect time would be.  Gil, Woody Allen’s alter ego (younger and better looking) is a successful Hollywood writer who thinks that he could write the great American novel if only it were the 1920s.  Stranded in the wrong time, Gil (Owen Wilson) is marooned in the right place—Paris—with his fiancée’s rich Republican parents.  Inez and her obnoxious mother and father, defend the Tea Party (the current one) and like Gil’s money and his Hollywood success but not him.  The absurd unsuitability of Inez (Rachel McAdams) for Gil, the incurable romantic, is our clue that the film is an allegory.

Allen draws the audience into the philosophical fantasy by forcing us to assume the role of the most obnoxious character in the film.  Paul (Michael Sheen), an old friend of Inez, is a typical pedantic academic—the kind that is compelled to lecture to all within earshot about matters clearly not in his realm of expertise.  Any art lover with even a bare minimum of knowledge knows that the sculptor, Auguste Rodin, was never married to the sculptor, Camille Claudel, but Paul gets in an argument with the guide at the Rodin Museum.  And it is here, at this unfortunate juncture, that we become Paul the Pedantic, for those of us in the know immediately spot Carla Bruni, who makes the American Inez look lumpy and badly dressed.

The fun for the effete truly begins when the magic Peugeot comes around a dark curve of a quiet Parisian back street as the midnight hour chimes.  Who should pop out of the Peugeot and beckon Gil to join to get in but Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald?

The glamorous pair whisk the bemused American in Paris away to an elegant soirée held by Jean Cocteau, where he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard) the current mistress of Picasso.  We all know that Picasso was entangled with a wife he couldn’t divorce, Olga, and was enthralled with Marie Thérèse, so Adriana is another clue that we are in fantasyland.  And then Scott and Zelda take Gil away to another party and we are so pleased that we know where they are going: Bricktop’s and we know who Bricktop was. And when we get there, we immediately see Josephine Baker, clothed, dancing the Charleston in her off time.  We, in our erudition, also wonder why Cole Porter was at the first party instead of playing the piano for Bricktop, which was more to his habit.  And then at the end of the evening, we finish off our entrée with a large helping of Ernest Hemingway.

Corey Stoll (Law and Order, L.A.) does a great job of playing Hemingway who is self-important and pompous, obsessed with manhood, and spouts his own spare and lean “masculine” prose, learned from Gertrude Stein. Hemingway tells Gil that he has published only one novel, presumably The Sun Also Rises, meaning that, in time, we are in 1926.  It cannot be any later than that year because after 1926, the Fitzgeralds left Paris. Francis Scott Fitzgerald had already published This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, and, of course, Hemmingway was passive aggressive and jealous of the more successful writer.  Having deduced with year we are in, the next night we get to meet Gertrude Stein (Kathy Baker)  herself, holding court under the portrait Picasso did of her in 1906 (and yes, that is Alice B. Toklas who opens the door for Gil).

Naturally, Picasso is in Gertrude’s salon with a painting that is anachronistically out of place for a decade during which he was in his classical conservative period.  The faux painting looks a bit like Large Nude in a Red Armchair (1929), which signals a change to his flirtation with Surrealism.

Speaking of Surrealism, the film is full of Surrealist artists, also a bit out of time. Surrealism proper does not begin until 1924 when André Breton issued his Manifesto and the movement was a movement of poets, not artists.  The main artists associated with Surrealism were those who were once Dadaists.  Having just painted Harlequin’s Carnival, only Joan Miro, who was careful to keep his distance from the French group, was the most fully developed surrealist painter in the twenties.

But here is Salvador Dali (Adrian Brody) having a drink with Gil three years before he became a Surrealist.  And later, the pair is joined by Man Ray (much taller than he was in real life) and Luis Bunuel, with whom Dali would make Un chien andalou in 1928.  We miss seeing Lee Miller who could have been either at the Cocteau party or with Man Ray—after all, she was the muse for both men.  But for Gil, his muse is Adriana who takes him on a trip to the Belle Epoch where they meet Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge.  No sooner do they start chatting with the Count, then they are joined by Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin, who must have been in town between his journeys to the South Pacific.  For Adriana, this is her Golden Age, not the Twenties of the Lost Generation.  She could be right; these are the last years before a century of war and loss and disillusionment.  Gil, however, needs the inspiration the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Stein in order to come into his own and to “find himself” as a writer and he leaves the woman he loves behind in the 1890s.

Before Gil rejoins the land of the present and the unsatisfactory, he delivers a bit of advice to Bunuel, to create a scene of a dinner party that no one can leave.  The New York Times informs us that the film in question would be The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The film ends with Gil finally ridding himself of Inez who has been dallying with the insufferable Paul, our own muse and inspiration in our personal history test.  Of course, the ideal lady is already waiting, selling Cole Porter records in the flea market (Les Puces) of Porte de Clignancourt.  We see immediately that she is perfect for Gil and an appropriate end to the fantasy of a middle aged man having a mid life crisis.  Of course she is half his age: what better way to start a new life with a sweet young thing who doesn’t wear make up and likes to walk in the rain?  Meanwhile the private detective who has been following Gil takes a wrong turn and winds up running for his live down the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

But one more thing, as Columbo would have said: the last snobbish satisfaction we feel before the end of Midnight in Paris is when we see Gil walk out of Shakespeare and Company. We are smugly pleased that we know the entire story of this establishment and are sorry we did not visit in the 1920s and run into James Joyce…in the afternoon.  Oh, we are so smart.  Woody Allen is so laughing at us. And by the way, Francis Scott Fitzgerald was named after Francis Scott Key.  Had to get that in.

Dr.  Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger


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