Woody Allen’s marvellous new film opens, in obvious reflection of his 1979 masterpiece Manhattan, with a three-and-a-half-minute sequence featuring shots of the city of light in daytime and fading into rainy night set to the Sidney Bechet tune “Si tu vois ma mère.”* In voiceover against a blank screen, we’re quickly introduced to Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), the Allen surrogate in this, the director’s forty-first feature film. Gil is a hack Hollywood screenwriter on vacation with his fiancée Inez (a miscast Rachel McAdams). He’s “in love with a fantasy” of Paris in the ’20s (Paris in the ’20s in the rain, specifically), and is having a hard time with the novel he’s always wanted to write (called “Out of the Past”), about a man who works in a nostalgia shop. To clear his head, he takes strolls around the city at night.
The film moves quickly into the escapist fantasy telegraphed musically and visually in the opening montage: twenty minutes in, and we’re in the ’20s. A perplexed Gil, annoyed by the faux intellectualism of his fiancée’s friend (an excellent Michael Sheen) and his ditzy wife, is strolling around the rain-slicked cobblestone streets. He sits at the foot of a set of concrete stairs, and, as the clock strikes twelve, sees a beautiful 1920 Peugeot Landaulet appear out of the darkness; the gaggle of bon vivants inside whisks him away, and he soon finds himself at a party for Jean Cocteau. This is where the film starts to incorporate a game of guess-the-famous-historical-personage: we meet the Fitzgeralds, Zelda and Scott—easy picks, and perfectly written and cast—especially the vivacious Alison Pill as Zelda, with her languorous Southern drawl.
In short order, we’re introduced to a variety of Jazz Age luminaries: Ernest Hemingway (a standout performance by the hitherto unknown Corey Stoll) who, like the Bogey apparition in Play it Again, Sam, serves as a man’s man to give Gil advice on manly matters; T.S. Eliot (“Prufrock is, like, my mantra,” Gil admiringly tells him); Cole Porter (whose love songs provide background music in the past, and nostalgic conversation fodder in the present); Luis Buñuel (to whom Gil humorously pitches El ángel exterminador); Picasso; Gertrude Stein (a tremendous Kathy Bates), from whom Gil gets writing advice; a stoic Man Ray (“I understand perfectly, [Gil]—you come from another time…”); and a scene-stealing Salvador Dalí, wonderfully played by Adrien Brody. We also meet Marion Cotillard’s character, whom the film eventually reveals as one of its true stars. She plays Adriana, something of an artist’s muse, and a sometime lover to both Hemingway and Picasso.
As the first of many nights in back in time draws to a close, Gil’s contemporary conundrums—of wondering whether Inez is right for him, and of how on Earth to finish his book—clash with Stein and Hemingway’s writing advice, and his budding infatuation with Adriana. We soon learn that she, in turn, is obsessed with la belle époque Paris: the 1890s, the time of Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, of Gauguin and Matisse. Djuna Barnes, Alice B. Toklas, Joséphine Baker, Juan Belmonte and a number of others are discussed and/or seen. Adriana says she came to Paris from Bordeaux to work with Coco Chanel, and Gil, trying to sound intellectual, quotes Hemingway back at himself, repeating that line about all American literature having come from one book, Huckleberry Finn.
Back to the present, and to Inez cultivating a relationship with Michael Sheen’s pseudo-intellectual art historian. She’s without a doubt the film’s most poorly written character, but Woody’s never really been great with women. As if to make up for it, his cameo-casting of Carla Bruni as a tour-guide at the Rodin museum is inspired: sitting on a park bench with Gil, her reading in translation of a section of Adriana’s diaries is nothing short of mesmerising. Léa Seydoux (Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) plays the age-old Allen variation on the mpdg stock type, of whom Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan was arguably an early iteration: a flirtatious, impressionable young blonde to whose charms Gil inevitably, wantonly succumbs.
As much as he might occasionally seem a bit too upbeat or perhaps even insular, Gil is still a typical Woody stand-in. An archetypal Allen character, exasperated and nervy in the same beat, he gives a bemused Zelda Fitzgerald a valium (calling it something like “the wonder-drug of the future”); confides in Hemingway, explaining his biggest fear is death; and worries that staying in the 1890s will have its drawbacks (no Zifromax, novocane, or antibiotics, you see). Wilson fits the Woody-surrogate role to a T, his quietly manic verbal tics and physical mannerisms—the way he nervously saunters around with his hands in his pockets—fleshing out the character from its on-the-page origins. What’s more, casting Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy (In the Loop) as Inez’s acerbic, disapproving parents gives the film an extra jolt from time to time.
The city is as much a motivator here as it was in Allen’s great New York films of the ’70s and ’80s. Music plays a central role, too: Stephane Wrembel’s delightfully slide-filled Reinhardtesque piece “Bistro Fada” and a (slightly chintzy) love theme on accordion serve as underscore, as did Gershwin in Manhattan. Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas’ masterful, gloriously lush cinematography bathes the city of light in an eternal golden glow, and subtly embellishes its darker nocturnal corners. (This may mark the start of a continuing collaboration: Khondji is also shooting Allen’s next film, the Rome-set Nero Fiddled [initially titled Bop Decameron].)
When he started doing standup in the ’60s, Allen had a running bit about the Lost Generation; the personages (Hemingway, Stein, Picasso, the Fitzgeralds) and even the recurring punch line—pun intended—reappear in similar fashion in Midnight in Paris. He may once have adored New York City (and he may still today), but with his forty-first feature film—his warmest and most inviting in many years—it’s now clear that Woody Allen, being the irrepressible romantic he is, probably always wanted to live in Paris in the ’20s (in the rain).
Midnight in Paris is in cinemas now.
*As evidenced in Wild Man Blues, Woody has long been enamoured with Bechet.