(directed by Woody Allen, 2011)
Several people have told me over the last few months that I had to watch this film. ‘You’ll really like it,’ they said, friends and colleagues alike, ‘it’s just up your street.’ Clearly my conviction that I should have been born in another age (preferably as Lucy Honeychurch) isn’t as secret as I thought.
It’s little wonder that this film has been so popular. Whimsical and light-hearted, it’s set in one of the world’s most photogenic cities and it stars Owen Wilson, on mellow form, as a romantic, vulnerable and misunderstood writer. The concept is fresh and clever, but at heart it’s a deeply traditional fable of the kind Hollywood loves, all about finding yourself and realising that happiness is about facing up to your problems rather than running away from them. It’s the kind of film you watch on a girls’ night in with white wine and chocolate truffles. It was always going to be a hit.
Screenwriter and would-be novelist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) travels to Paris with his fiancée Inez and her domineering parents. Starry-eyed, and intoxicated with the beauty of the city, Gil walks the streets pining for the golden days of Paris in the 1920s. (Inez and her mother, less susceptible to foreign charm, stay firmly within a comforting bubble of international restaurants and overpriced shops.) One night as he returns from a party, slightly tipsy, Gil stops to rest on some church steps. As the bells strike midnight above him, an old-fashioned car draws up. He is urged to clamber into the back, accepts and is whisked away, by some slip in the fabric of time, into 1920s Paris. Here he rubs shoulders with the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, Picasso and Hemingway, discusses his novel with Gertrude Stein and shares a table with Dali, Bunuel and Man Ray.
Gil can’t believe his luck: these exuberant people accept him into their circle and, what’s more, they consider him an equal, giving him the self-belief he desperately lacks in the present day. While Inez looks down on Gil’s novel-writing and slavishly admires the self-appointed expertise (on any subject) of her insufferable friend Paul, the historical figures take time to read and appreciate Gil’s work and to give constructive criticism.
To be honest, I found this contrast between contemporary cod-intellectualism and historical openness a little laboured. It feels like another piece of wish-fulfilment: the downtrodden author, his gifts unappreciated by his peers, is vindicated by the approbation of the giants of the past. It wasn’t the only thing that felt artificial. For example, isn’t it a coincidence that Gil stumbles upon his admirer Adriana’s diary at the bookstall on the Left Bank and – despite not reading any French – decides to pick it up? And isn’t it convenient that, every time he bumps into someone, they happen to be a key historical figure? Of course, I’m fully aware that this isn’t supposed to be realistic. It’s done largely for comic effect and part of the pleasure is guessing who will pop up next.
I’m no expert on Woody Allen’s films but, considering those I have seen, I was expecting Midnight in Paris to be a little more substantial and a little less sentimental than it was. Owen Wilson plays the role that Allen would surely have played himself, had it been ten or twenty years ago, and Wilson’s well-meaning, nervous performance seemed to be channelling Allen. The focus on the writer’s art, and on the contrast between the romantic figure of the writer and the philistines around him, are themes that I remember from Manhattan. And yet Midnight in Paris dispenses with Manhattan’s more sophisticated satire and takes refuge in cliche, reducing the characters to easily-digestible caricatures. The film’s ultimate message is one that comes up again and again in modern Hollywood: the golden age is not a physical thing, to be defined and longed after, but something we make in and of ourselves. For Gil, the golden age is the 1920s; for Adriana, the Belle-Epoque; for Degas, Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec, those giants of the Belle-Epoque, the greatest era for mankind was the Renaissance. There is no such thing as a perfect era: life is what we make of it, in whichever age we find ourselves.
Let’s be frank: it’s charming but contrived – which is not to say that I didn’t like it. (For heaven’s sake, I’m one of the few people out there with a soft spot for Love Actually – though only at Christmas – and it doesn’t get more contrived than that.) There is much to like in Midnight in Paris, even though it isn’t a game-changer. It’s harmless good fun and an indulgent celebration of a beautiful city. And, just between us, who hasn’t dreamed of being magically transported into the past?