AUDIENCES AND REVIEWERS are falling all over themselves to praise Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen's latest offering that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last month. In it, successful hack Hollywood screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) and his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), have come to Paris with her stuffy Republican parents on a business trip. While the soon-to-be family live the posh Parisian high-life of five-star palace hotels and swanky restaurants, Gil is dreaming of writing the great American novel like his heroes in the Lost Generation who made Paris their own. But as Gil is absorbed by his literary nostalgia, Inez's attention is diverted to the husband of one of her friends, a cocksure academic, an "expert" in everything in and about the City of Light. And with this set-up, a fantasy unfolds.
"Charming," the reviewers say. "Allen harkens back to the magic in A Purple Rose in Cairo, New York Stories, and others... " Blah, blah, blah.
I saw the film a couple of weeks ago in a near-empty theater in Paris, which I'd expected to be packed even if it was a beautiful day. The French love Woody Allen and remained big supporters even when many Americans stopped lining up outside the movieplexes whenever an Allen film premiered (impelling him to start shooting his films abroad). But the French like nothing better than endless discussions and over-intellectualizing, so Allen's cinematic navel-gazing never lost its luster here -- even as his films became stale and a chunk of his American audience drifted away.
"For reasons that remain mysterious to me, my films are appreciated more in Europe -- and in France in particular -- than they are back in the U.S. Could it be that the subtitles over here are incredibly brilliant?" -- Woody Allen
BUT WHICH CAME first -- Allen's filmmaking becoming tired and overworked or his fall-from-grace meltdown with partner Mia Farrow? When Farrow discovered nude photos of her daughter (for all practical purposes Allen's stepdaughter) in his possession, and he admitted to their sexual relationship, his actions smacked of incest, whether it met the technical description or not. Allen's betrayal of Farrow and the seduction of her daughter was a flashing red light for many Americans, and much empathy went to the side of Farrow.
With the recent Franco-American discussion of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, one wonders how the French attitude might have compared to our own -- an attitude best described by Allen's only biological son, Ronan Seamus Farrow (who as far as I can determine does not see his father): "He's my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression."
And perhaps the DSK affair also puts this on my mind: One can't help but look at Woody Allen's oeuvre of romantic sex comedies -- in which so many older men have a taste for teenage girls--as another public confession of his private life. Or was Allen's relationship with Soon Yi Farrow Previn (and the ensuing scandal) some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy? Allen and Ms. Previn married in 1997 and have adopted two children of their own.
I remember when Woody Allen movies were extraordinary. When I laughed so hard I cried and Allen's character was the epitome of a real person, a man (Jewish or not) with all his neuroses so publicly displayed, with a flawed humanity that all of us could relate to and share. When the images and the dialogue made us feel transformed. When his work was revealing, fresh, and perfectly captured the zeitgeist.
Then came Soon Yi, and suddenly -- for me and many others -- Allen's neuroses didn't seem nearly so charming anymore.
BUT NOW EVEN most American reviewers are smitten by Midnight in Paris.
It must be said that Allen captured Paris beautifully in this new film. Midnight in Paris literally glows with one after another of Paris' grand monuments in a dreamy montage that would make any Francophile giddy. The cinematography of the entire film is exceptional, and Paris is, after all, the most beautiful city in the world.
Are audiences blinded by the city's exquisite splendor? I ask this as a serious question. And are we all so enamored with The Lost Generation that it makes no difference how they're portrayed -- even as cartoons, which is how I saw it? Or are Americans so hungry to see someone's dreams fulfilled that their usual cinematic yardsticks have gone up in the smoke of nostalgia?
There's no question that dazzling Paris is the star of the film. But in my opinion, as soon as the montage is over the movie's energy drops with a clichéd thud -- despite good performances from a cast of capable actors, though none that blew me away. Owen Wilson (as much as I love him) as Gil is the same Woody character we've been watching for some 40 years. I spent much of the movie checking my watch. I am not going to spoil the fantasy (though most reviewers have), but I love those literary giants as much as anyone and have an ongoing relationship with them in Paris myself, especially a couple of them at Le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, which is near where I live.
What I also find interesting is that many of my fellow American ex-pats in Paris didn't find the film charming at all. "Dreadful," "boring," and "trite" are some of the adjectives that have been flying around in my little sphere. And I freely admit: Maybe this is because we're spoiled. We see the beauty of Paris every day, and so the marvelous are marvels that we own, though we do not take them for granted. It may also mean that we aren't dazzled by a movie pulling out every stereotyped image imaginable to lure back an audience.
Could I be mesmerized by Woody Allen again? I would like to think I could be by Woody Allen the artist. I believed he was going in the right direction with Match Point. That taking himself out of the film and exploring a new kind of story (for him) was revving up his imagination and energy.
But as long as he's in the picture -- even with Owen Wilson as his stand-in -- what we get is Woody's same old interior monologue. I feel like I know that Woody well enough.
I'd love to hear your takes on Midnight in Paris. Eaten up with Paris fever after seeing it? Tell me why.
Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris. She loves the Lost Generation and visits their haunts quite frequently. To see more of her work, go to www.betharnold.com
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