So excited about this movie, it was difficult to know where to start without sounding too preachy.
Some research was needed to ensure any reference to the movie’s famous characters was correct. I didn’t want to do a Paul (Michael Sheen’s painful character in the film) and preface each reference with “If I’m not mistaken…” Then I came upon a quote that summed up what could probably count for my particular bias towards the auteur.
Critic Rex Reed began his review of Midnight in Paris (2011) with “I’ve always said that Woody Allen on a bad day is better than everybody else on Sunday.”
Allen has cut into the vein of every wannabe writer who believes you have to be cold, hungry but energised by your surroundings to write that seminal work. Starving in a Paris loft will help you create a masterpiece that can’t possibly be written at a comfortable desk in Smalltown, Anywhereville.
His hero, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) isn’t going to starve in any Parisian attic but he has the hankering to do it and needs guidance, which he won’t accept from any of his peers, to fashion his novel about “a guy who works in a nostalgia store.”
Gil, who thinks he is happily engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdams) is holidaying in Paris with her parents and falls back in love with the notion of living in Paris during The Golden Age – the 1920s.
Midnight in Paris sets to create/destroy the notion that a past time was better. Gil wants to live in the ’20s; the delightful Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who he meets when mysteriously transferred back there, wants to live in La Belle Epoque, Paris of the 1890s; while Gaugin and Degas, who they meet there, are, according to Gil, wishing they had been painting with Titian and Michelangelo.
It adds up to a fantasy romp where Gil finds himself meeting his heroes from the 1920s each time midnight tolls on his strolls through Montmartre. He has his novel critiqued by Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who is introduced to him by Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll); suggests plot lines to Luis Bunuel; convinces a suicidal Zelda Fitzgerald that her husband Scott really does love her (“I just know”); hears Salvador Dali describe one of his future masterpieces when really he is telling Gil how he would draw him; the list goes on.
Each character just turns up. Every time Gil meets somebody, they are famous to him but struggling artists to each other, perhaps further convincing our hero that to be in Paris at that time would have drawn out his inner book.
According to a Poetry Foundation biography of Stein, “(she) helped shape an artistic movement that demanded a novel form of expression and a conscious break with the past.” It is something like this that she expresses about Gil’s book and his novel blooms before his eyes. Hemingway weighs in by telling him Inez is having an affair with her married friend, the boorish Paul (Sheen), and Gil’s break with the past becomes complete, forever to stay in Paris and write.
Allen has a tendency to repeat in his movies – the lead character is usually himself, a writer with relationship problems and Wilson covers the Allen persona in his own style, without imitation; beautiful cities become a character as New York did in most of his earlier work; travelling to the past (Zelig), the future (Sleeper) or imagined characters interacting with real people (Purple Rose of Cairo) has been a recurring plot form; the lead character’s reluctant tolerance of pseudo-intellectuals; and he is obsessed with Hemingway.
Critics have dubbed Midnight in Paris “whimsical,” “enchanting” and a “return to Allen’s best.” I can only concur.
If I’m not mistaken: When Gil is asked how he got to a party he says, something like: “I met this guy called Archibald Leach and he asked me to come along.” Though there is no record of his being in Paris in the 1920s, the English-born Archibald Leach did go to the USA and become Cary Grant.
Gertrude Stein was the daughter of a railroad executive whose investments in streetcar lines and real estate made the family wealthy. Her parents had both died by the time she was 17, she began living in Paris in 1903 (aged 29) and by the 1920s was well established to entertain young post WWI writers and artists at Saturday evening salons at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Stein’s biography is at: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/gertrude-stein