Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Midnight in Paris

Lowdown: Time traveling to old Paris inspires second thoughts in the mind of an otherwise engaged American.
After a line of so-so films, of the likes of Scoop, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Whatever Works, Woody Allen is back. He’s back with a film that’s set in Paris for a change. He’s back with a film that heavily embraces fantastic themes in order to make its point. He’s back to producing good cinema!
Set in present time Paris, Midnight in Paris follows Gil (Owen Wilson), a Hollywood script writer who is quite successful at his job. He’s in Paris with his fiancĂ©, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. In between arguments with his future Tea Partying parents in law, aggravations caused by Inez dragging him to take part in activities involving her friend Paul (Michael Sheen), and Paul being the pompous know it all scholar, Gil is pondering his future. His dream is to become a writer and abandon script writing: although he is good with the latter he feels cheap for the work he produces. Perhaps he should settle in Paris instead? The place seems to fit his vision much better than home.
Our Gil goes to wonder the marvelous city he’s at. He does so on his own; his fiancĂ© is much more interested in Paul’s stuff. He loses his way around Paris, but at the stroke of midnight he’s rescued by an old car filled with revelers that drags him to a party. Between meeting the rather too youngish Cole Porter and Ernest Hemingway, Gil realizes he stepped back to what he considers Paris’ golden age: the twenties. By morning he’s back to his [our] present, but he makes the most of his revelation: he goes back to have his manuscript reviewed by his idols. He even meets a girl, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who seems to much more compatible with his passions and attitude to life than his contemporary Inez. Eventually, as he’s torn between the past and the present, Gil learns where his stand should really be.
The first question I would like to address with regards to Midnight in Paris is – what is Midnight in Paris? To begin with, is it a comedy, given Wilson’s casting, the witty Allen script and the occasional laugh? Is it a drama, given the serious contemplations at hand? Or is it science fiction, given the important role time travel plays? I will address the latter first: while John Scalzi argues Midnight in Paris should not be classified as science fiction, I will argue it definitely should. Not because it’s competing with Star Wars, but rather because I consider the science fiction on display at Midnight in Paris to be the best science fiction around: the type that is subtle enough so you hardly notice it, but also the type that is pivotal to the overall message. With this in mind I will add Midnight in Paris is also a comedy and a drama. Not the most laugh inducing comedy ever and not the most dramatic feature ever, but I would be hard pressed to nominate a film that does the comedy-drama-science fiction thing better. When I think about it, such a film would probably be also a Woody Allen one.
Now, let us assume you wake me up in the middle of the night (don’t, please!) and ask me what Midnight in Paris is all about. My answer to you would not be “a film about an American’s engagement breaking apart in Paris” or anything along these lines; my answer would be “Midnight in Paris is a film that thrashes the foundations of the modern day conservative movement”. Bear in mind it is no coincidence the would be parents in law are Tea Party supporters!
My explanation is simple: the conservative movement’s main reason for keeping things the way they are, i.e., conservatism, is the assumption that there was a golden time – “the good old days” – when things were just great. But then progress came and ruined us all! Woody Allen, through his time traveling protagonist, is showing us there was no real golden age in the past: Gil thinks the 1920s were better, but those from the 1920s consider the latter part of the 19th century better, and those from the 19th century think the days of the Renaissance were the real deal… Instead of looking at a past that never was, Allen suggests we focus on the present. He seems to agree with the likes of Stephen Pinker, who suggests in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that humanity has been steadily improving with time. It comes down to the basics: the amount of violence the average person is exposed to has been on a constant decline through time. In other words, our world is not deteriorating from some sort of a glamorous past; our world is getting better all the time. Our job is to make sure it continues along this trajectory.
Given my personal opinions and given Midnight in Paris’ stand, you can start seeing why I loved the film. I loved it for several other reasons, too. I loved it for its cast, for a start. Not only are the previously named stakeholders actors that I like who get to play the roles they’re best suited for, there are also plenty of cameo appearances that enrich the film: from the joker card of Carla Bruni to your regular aces of Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody, to name but two examples of eccentric performers of the celebrities of yonder. Even the French cameos of the likes of Gad Elmaleh’s are excellent.
Then there is Paris. A city so beautiful it doesn’t need much of a film to stand out with, but a city that nevertheless stands out when the film that revolves around it is excellent. Even though the bulk of Midnight in Paris centers around Americans “in exile” at Paris, there is probably no other city where the trick could have worked to produce a wonderful film. Even if the sense of wonder is caused by association – I have never lived in Paris to know whether it stands up to the hype - Midnight in Paris is a wonderful film taking place at a wonderful city.
Best scene: I never realized how much of my cultural background is the result of people that migrated to live their lives in Paris. The scene where Gil first encounters the celebrities of 1920 Paris and some of their work was therefore a bit of an eye opener.
Technical assessment: Woody Allen is still playing his weird games, providing yet another Blu-ray lacking surround sound.
Overall: I really dig Midnight in Paris from start to finish. Woody Allen is finally back to making good cinema with a film deserving 5 out of 5 stars.

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