This week, I had the delectable pleasure to see Woody Allen’s new film, Midnight in Paris. Like many, I have been disenchanted with Woody Allen as of late – his film output over the past decade has been mediocre at best, and absolutely dismal at worst. Of course, it’s hard to expect such a prolific filmmaker such as Allen – who has been releasing one film a year since he first started making movies – to maintain such a consistently high-quality output heading into his sixth decade of filmmaking. However, right up through the end of the 90’s, it seemed like Allen was an unstoppable filmmaking force to be reckoned with. In my opinion, Allen only made two good films in the last decade – Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona – but even those films didn’t come close to matching the level of wit and brilliance of his greatest classic works. However now, in 2011 at the dawn of a new decade, Allen delivers what in my opinion is his finest film since Deconstructing Harry and destined to rank up there with his greats.
Allen’s films can usually be divided into two main categories: His conceptual films that explore deep, meaningful themes, often times employing meta-fictional fantasy elements, and his straightforward melodramas that usually portray realistic, real-life interpersonal relationships. Almost all of his films this past decade have fallen into the latter category, even though in my opinion, his films are most interesting when they combine the two. But with Midnight in Paris, Allen “returns to form” so to speak and creates a premise that ranks up there with The Purple Rose of Cairo‘s whimsical, meta-fictional fantasy element. In the new film, Owen Wilson plays Gil, a disgruntled writer looking for inspiration, doubting his merit as an artist, and obsessed with Paris of the 1920’s, claiming that it was the last true time and place in history to live and thrive as an artist. One night, while on a midnight stroll through the town, Gil gets into an old towncar which drives him to a party. Soon, he realizes that he has actually been transported to the 1920’s, bumping elbows with the likes of Earnest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso.
It’s a strikingly clever and wildly imaginative premise through which Allen is able to fully explore his deeply introverted, self-reflective themes of the importance of art through the lens of the past history of art. Even going off of the short character description I gave above, it is clear that Gil is a thinly veiled representation of Allen himself, as the protagonists of his latest films have often been. These themes and questions that the film raises are even more meaningful when put into perspective with recent interviews in which Allen proclaimed that he doesn’t believe he has ever made a truly great piece of work, and that none of his films will stand the test of time. With that in mind, Gil’s struggle to find his place as an artist in the history of art becomes all the more poignant, because it is clearly Allen’s struggle as well. The film touches upon a slew of other themes as well, including the nature of nostalgia, and exploring the rationale behind the thought that “everything was better in the past.”
I actually felt like the film slightly missed the mark when it came to the more modern day relationship-based elements – Gil’s relationship with his fiancee Inez feels like one of those relationships that makes absolutely no sense – Inez is so clearly a completely bad fit for Gil, and is so obviously cheating on him, that their relationship seems implausible and feels a little false, especially for a Woody Allen film. However, Allen more than makes up for it with the heartwarming romance that blossoms between Gil and Adriana, a woman from the 1920’s world he is transported to, played by Marion Cotillard. In general, performances in the film are solid all around, with Owen Wilson delivering what is probably his warmest and most charming performance to date. Marion Cotillard is the highlight of the cast, though, and in my opinion has a solid chance at an Oscar nomination come awards season – it is a sweet, affectionate, inviting performance that she really sells and totally nails. However, it is none other than Wilson’s Darjeeling Limited co-star Adrian Brody who steals the show, playing a historical character that I do not want to spoil, as it is really a treat to behold.
All in all, Midnight in Paris is a wonderful film – the best of the year so far – and highly recommended for fans of Woody Allen, fans of Paris, or fans of good cinema in general. It is one of the most beautiful depictions of the French capital and also one of Woody Allen’s most gorgeous-looking films, beautifully lit and lensed by the great Darius Khondji. Featuring a strong premise, a lovely romance, populated by fantastic actors, accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack and containing plenty of Allen’s signature humor to boot, Midnight in Paris is a real gem, and highly recommended for all.