‘Midnight in Paris’ Ten Years Later: A Stroll Through Moonlit Nostalgia

 


Since its release 10 years ago, I’ve seen Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris dozens of times, and I firmly believe that it is the best film he made since Husbands and Wives all the way back in 1992. The film’s opening is reminiscent of one of his masterpieces, the 1979 Manhattan, where Woody treats us to beautiful images of New York city alongside the immortal tune ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ by one of his jazz heroes, the great George Gershwin; Midnight in Paris follows in the same fashion, and opens with a stroll through various locations in Paris as Sidney Bechet’s gypsy jazz song ‘Si Tu Vois Ma Mère’ plays in the background, instilling a feeling of serenity but also a sense of wonder, one that the film will later utilize to dive into its fantastic story.

This is a Woody Allen film, and all the elements of a Woody Allen film are very much present here: a neurotic, helpless romantic protagonist torn between love and art, a romantic affair that crumbles to give room to another one to flourish, literary and artistic references galore, a visible love to city life (for decades it was New York, before he started shooting all around the world, and here, it’s Paris), and lots, and I mean lots, of jazz. The story revolves around Gil Pender, a Hollywood hack trying to make it as a novelist, on a trip with his fiancée and her parents in Paris, and as the latter is swayed by a former friend, Gil wanders the streets of Paris until he gets into a cab where he meets figures of history and they go back in time to The Jazz Age in Paris, the 1920’s, an era he romanticizes endlessly, and where he meets his literary idols.

Owen Wilson in the lead role delivers an incredible performance, one that brings to mind young Woody himself in Annie Hall or Manhattan maybe, and the supporting actors’ performances are nothing short of brilliant either: Tom Hiddleston portraying F. Scott. Fitzgerald, Corey Stall playing Ernest Hemingway and Adrien Brody playing Salvador Dali are the highlights of an extraordinary cast. When it comes to cinematographers, one can feel intimidated working with a director who collaborated with none other than the legendary Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman’s right hand man, but Darius Khondji holds his ground: Paris is portrayed as dreamily as Gil Pender sees it, and as he jumps from one era to another, the city maintains its immortal charm; beautiful lighting, curious angles and generous use of wide shots bring the city of lights to life in a way rarely seen in film.

The universal themes of any Woody Allen film are all here: love is captured then destroyed, thoroughly explored and criticized, Man’s place in the world is examined through the notion of time and nostalgia, which one character in the film dubs as “denial of the painful present”, and the witty comedy here is more plentiful than the defeatist narratives Woody’s protagonists usually embrace. But what makes the film stand out among his vast filmography (Midnight in Paris is his 41st film) is its fantastic setting, it feels like a science fiction drama made for literature-induced audiences, and it is a joy to sit through. Figures of The Jazz Age are portrayed just as you have come to know them from their work, Hemingway is just as simple and violent as you read him in ‘A Moveable Feast’, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s love for Zelda is as crazy and whole as you read anywhere, and Gertrude Stein is as firm and resolved as you may have read in Alice B. Toklas’ autobiography. If you are an admirer of these figures of history, or if you love the literature and art of the 1920’s, this will be a blast to watch, and if you are not, I believe it is just as enjoyable.

Upon its release, a critic described the film as “Woody Allen rediscovering Woody Allen”, and I very much agree with that. The film is a return to his roots, an homage to both his literary idols and his own work in the 1970’s and the 1980’s, his two most prolific decades, but his work since has been nothing short of solid. For a man who has been making a film a year constantly for more than four decades now, his creative output is simply mind-blowing.  

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