There is a particular type of conversation I am fond of. It might be called something like ‘the extended hypothetical’. Often it involves the use of an offhand observation to launch into a film proposal or the conception of an imagined world in which all genres, favourite actors, personalities and references might be smashed together harder than particles in the LHC. You know the kind of thing: “During the zombie apocalypse I’ll track down Bear Grylls and we’ll build a jeep out of banana leaves and rattlesnakes, pick up Werner Herzog and hide out in the Cave of Forgotten Dreams eating tinned food until the whole thing blows over in 28 days. “
Not to get away from the point too much, I more often than not I find myself launched into these little monologues for the same reason anybody else does: we want to see all our favourite stuff in one place – on screen. This is how Snakes on a Plane happened. So if your “favourite stuff” involves the roaring twenties, mysterious schisms in time, French art history, the great American novelists, Woody Allen or Paris, you might just get your to have your extended hypothetical and watch it too.
Midnight in Paris is a rich and joyous film, an extended hypothetical in which the audience are invited to step into the past to test if our nostalgia for the romance of the last century is justified. It’s a film about the modern marvel of the city, which forces into close proximity great architecture, talent, riches and hardship. In the scheme of the whole universe, a vibrant city is no less than miraculous.
Owen Wilson plays Gil, a jaded Hollywood feature writer who longs for all things anachronistic, and is an accordion hybrid of Woody Allen at all ages. Gil has nearly finished his first novel, a semi-biography about a man in love with the past, part of his whimsical, aesthetic side that fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) hopes she and her bullish parents can harass out of him before their imminent wedding. Even on their trip together in Paris, Gil cannot shake the feeling he is being disapproved of, especially not when in the company of Inez’s friend Paul (Micheal Sheen in academic beard), whose relentless casual sermon on Parisian cultural history is wearing very thin indeed. Gil’s remedy for the information-era, shopping-as-creativity attitudes of his companions is to drunkenly wander the lit-up streets at night, finding inspiration for his novel. Of course, when the clock tower peals out the witching hour, Gil finds himself within a whole new Paris and surrounded, finally, by those brooding, artistic, night owls who understand him. It’s almost too much when he meets the lovely Adriana (Marion Cotillard), with whom he instantly connects.
Where Midnight in Paris deviates from classic Allen territory is in its integration of fully realised period scenes, in which set dressing and costumes recreate Paris in the ‘20s and in the heyday of the Moulin Rouge. The costuming is sensitive and sexy, evading all of the mufti campiness of TV drawing-room whodunits and the restrictiveness of bonnet dramas. Somehow the youth and familiarity of the historical parts are preserved, a monocle, moustache or drop-waist flapper dress seeming no less eccentric than some of the garb people wear out nowadays. It’s the liveliness of the past the audience is invited to partake of, rather than the prohibitive cultural differences between then and now. This is original and thrilling to watch.
There is an extent to which this film might be lost on those not well versed in art history or early modern literature, as it includes a magnificent roll-call of writers, artists and thinkers making cameo character appearances. For those a little more brushed up, there is riotous fun to be had watching the whole of 1920s Parisian bohemia played out before your eyes and inducing a double-star-stuck sensation when those personalities are played by current celebrities. Of particularly majesty is Adrian Brody’s other-plane Salvador Dali.
If Woody Allen knows one this it is voice. Midnight in Paris is a tour de force of literary impersonation. Throughout it the unique personalities and gravitas of such characters as Vera Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein are fully realised. They look, sound, are as you would expect them to be if you thought that a person might speak in the same with the same manner and intensity that they have written their most famous works. Yet they also seem approachable, so close to our reach we could ask them how their day went, what are you working on, want to get a drink? These are histrionic literary caricatures of a wholeness and precision that encompasses everything we know about each personality as it has sifted down to us through the decades. Kathy Bates as Stein is abrupt, didactic, stilted; F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) is lovelorn and chatty, though neither is a shade on Corey Stoll’s truly incredible rendition of Earnest Hemingway. Stoll balances intensity with sincerity, manly confidence with drunken spontaneity and forceful stare with robust moustache. His Hemingway absolutely sparkles as a kind of celestial example of someone living how they write.
Allen is a sucker for a beautiful, educated woman. Indeed, Inez is so stunning, and indeed Rachel McAdams’ previous filmography is so charming, it takes a long time for either Gil or the audience to realise that Inez is inane and dramatic. She’s the kind of woman I hope never to be: entitled, unimaginative, unreasonable, easily won over, immodest and passive aggressive. This is an incredible piece of casting, and a clever companion for Wilson’s very apparent physical and verbal resemblance to the kind of male protagonist we love from Allen films. Gil experiences a kaleidoscope of wonderful events whilst remaining almost entirely passive throughout.
Midnight in Paris is a masterfully timed film. Revelations and exciting new characters spring up in a thrilling rhythmic crescendo. The script relishes all kinds of comedic possibilities, but never repeats itself, allowing Gil’s attention to be spent on more than just one-upping Paul, provoking his in-laws or making excuses to go back to his nocturnal wonderland.
Paris is a beautiful city, and Allen has written beautiful words and found beautiful people to fill it with. Though Allen’s script might be a kind of extended hypothetical in which he tries to figure out how he’d react to new love, the night and finding inspiration in Paris, the film is also a celebration of bohemia, art and resourcefulness. It’s a confirmation of everything we know about how new movements of music, art and literature come together, and our suspicion that the past was just as wonderful as we imagine it to be. This a story you will wish would happen to you, populated by characters you will adore and want to spend more time with.