Although still a great fan of Woody Allen’s film and stand-up work after half a century, I have to admit he’s made the odd dud movie in recent years. But his latest effort Midnight in Paris is for me the finest thing he’s ever done on pretty much every level. It isn’t just the originality of the film’s opening, the way every set-up is carefully arranged to maximise composition, the beautiful cinematography, and the remarkable casting that makes this film great: it’s the way Allen crafts idea, script and plot line in a way to be enjoyed on every level. Not ‘many’ levels, but every level. I have the sense that I’m going to watch the movie over and over again before I die – and each time, there’ll be the same inspiration, but also something – an inflection, a line, a scene, a reference – that I missed the last time.
This is a film about Time, nostalgia, and telling the real from the ersatz.
Gil Pelling (whose female friends keep calling him Jill, a running gag) is a hack Hollywood scriptwriter on vacation in Paris with his fiancee Inez, the spoiled daughter of very rich Republican parents who have joined them for a long weekend. He is a leftish Democrat who sees Tea Partiers as beneath intelligence, his father-in-law as a demented right-wing jerk who he hopes “treats my views with respect”, and Paris as the ultimate romantic city where to walk in the rain is to achieve Nirvana. In short, he is an affected liberal pillock.
The fact that he is engaged to the worst woman in the world for him at first strikes one as a bit plonky and obvious. But Allen uses this as a device – and the device is denial. Indeed, the spine of this movie is constructed from our personal escapes from reality. Gil’s problem is that he wants to idealise a past Paris that no longer exists. While we are at first distracted by the gross philistinism of his dick-headed future inlaws, as the film develops it becomes clear that they are what they are: it is Gil who needs to grow up and realise himself.
How he achieves this is so central to Woody Allen’s plot that it would be grossly unfair of me to reveal it here. Suffice to say that since the earlier days of Play it Again Sam, this director has enjoyed a dalliance with the past….and the ways in which nostalgia can often put a gloss on reality. The film begins with a braindead observation from a tedious art pedant about nostalgia as denial, but goes round full circle to a realisation that, at a deeper level, escape from reality is the disease of our age. In achieving this, Allen squares the circle between contemporary and classic. The diminutive Jewish jazz freak standup from the Big Apple is, and remains, a genius.
As Allen developed the Time theme, I have to confess I was in awe of his attention to detail, and ability to mix delightfully silly in-jokes with profoundly funny digs at all those who would wish to be in on those very same in-jokes. But overall, Gil’s achievement of real maturity has a totally believable basis – rounded off beautifully by a happy ending that is anything but schlock.
Midnight in Paris is a movie for everyone who has, at one time or another, thought that – just possibly – Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali might have been completely up themselves, and simply enjoying an era willing to be tolerant of their folies de sagesses. But it’s also an object lesson in how to stimulate the imagination, without resort to special effects. Woody Allen’s biggest assumption in making this film is that half-intelligent cinemagoers are prepared to go along with him. It is a very wise one.