Friday, June 17, 2011

Midnight in Paris

The first night I was in Paris, I got lost.

I suppose I am partly to blame for this. I was one of those naïve tourists who insist on walking everywhere, in the process discovering that when you say you will walk everywhere in Paris, the city takes you at your word and forces you to walk EVERYWHERE. The maddening asymmetrical layout of the city practically demands it. I doubt there is a street in the first eight arrondissements that I did not walk, whether I intended to or not, during my stay there.

But getting lost in Paris really is wonderful, and Woody Allen captures something of that pleasure in his latest, Midnight in Paris. Being lost on a deserted Parisian street at night is lonely and frightening, and highly recommended. What fun it is to walk those empty streets, so busy during the day, now populated only by the glowing orange street lights and whatever ghosts history wishes to conjure up each night. The novelty, I’m sure, must wear rather thin for the natives who just want to walk their dogs before bedtime.

However, tourists like Allen and myself are still easily seduced by these sorts of charms, and Midnight in Paris is a true tourist movie, with all the good and bad that implies. It opens with postcard-perfect shots of all the major sights, carefully avoiding the dreary lineups and crass commercialism that are part of the experience (tourist movies always find a way to avoid everything miserable about being a tourist). President Sarkozy’s wife even shows up in a supporting role, adding to the sneaking suspicion that this is not actually a new Woody Allen movie, but instead a very sophisticated French tourism ad. The camera has an uncanny—some might say ridiculous—tendency to find the Eiffel Tower in the background of seemingly each shot.

Drifting through these postcards is Gil Pender, Allen’s latest doubting hero (superbly played here by Owen Wilson, whose easygoing demeanour has always hinted at the sadness shown here). He’s come to Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdam, poorly applied) to vacation with her parents, but also to scrounge for inspiration. As a hack screenwriter, he’s struggling to write his first novel about a man working in a nostalgia shop. So where better to tap into the literary spirit than Paris, once host to literary giants like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who brooded in the cafes of the 1920s?

The playful conceit at the centre of Midnight in Paris is that this era comes to life every night. When the clock strikes midnight, an old car shows up to whisk Gil away to join his lost-generation heroes. Every night, he retreats from the dreary present into this legendary past, enchanted not just by the great artists but also an unknown woman named Adriana, who seems as lost as himself.

Yet it is not the woman who seduces him so much as the city itself. “Can any work of art compete with the beauty of a great city?” Gil asks of her, and he has a point. The voices on the street can become a kind of music, each boulevard a painting of incredible detail and depth with more mysteries than the eyes can behold. Every new street you walk down is another novel. The years have layered story upon story. So how can any mere film compete with that?

More specifically, how can a mere Woody Allen film compete with that? For all the seductive charms of this film—and trust me, there are many—there are just as many clumsy moments and missed opportunities. Most of the supporting characters are little more than a single searing note held for nearly two hours. Inez, her parents, her pedantic friend Paul: all are flat, dull, mean-spirited people, and in the case of Inez’s father, Republican to boot (just in case you mistakenly think you're supposed to like these awful, awful people). The real fantasy of the film is not that Gil journeys back in time to 1920s Paris every night, but rather that he would choose to join himself with this pathetic group in the first place. Time travel, I’ll buy, but that other stuff—really, Woody, come on.

And yet the film still succeeds—due to, not despite, its flaws. After all, can you ever make a truly satisfying film about disappointment? That is what lies at the heart of the film, and gives the film's lighter moments a melancholy undertone. As Gil burrows deeper into his dream version of Paris, he comes up against the false promises of that dream—a disappointment that Allen, an eternally flawed yet relentless filmmaker, knows all too well. Every fantasy world, no matter how well constructed, betrays its flaws in time. All you can do is will yourself not to look for the cracks in the foundation. It’s a feeble happiness, but an honest one, and all that Allen allows.

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