Oscar Vault Monday – Midnight in Paris, 2011 (dir. Woody Allen)

I’ve written a lot about Woody Allen over the last few years and I’m sure I’ll be writing about him for many more years to come. He doesn’t always hit the mark, but when he does, he hits it better than just about anyone. Case in point: 2011’s smash hit Midnight In Paris. It may well be in my top five favorite of Woody Allen’s many films. Part of this has to do with my love of Paris in twenties (and the fact that pretty much everything mentioned in the film was something I studied in college) and partly because of the experience I had when I first saw it. I had just moved back to San Francisco (like, literally THAT DAY) and I went to see it with my roommate and one of my good friends (who was visiting from Florida!) and it had been raining and the showtime we wanted to go to was sold out so we had to wait an hour in the lobby and it was the most perfect experience I could have asked for. There’s a lot of things to write about with this film, but I’ve decided just to focus on a few facets of it that I really love. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one: Best Art Direction, Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Director and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture in 2011 were: The DescendantsExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The HelpHugoMoneyballThe Tree of LifeWar Horse and winner The Artist.

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I saw a lot of great films in 2011 that didn’t get nominated for Best Picture (not to mention some of the best performances that got completely ignored). In a way the 2011 Oscar race was the race that made me stop loving the race. I’d finally had enough of all the bullshit. Obviously, I still love writing about the films that got nominated, but this is more out of love of history – and once the race is over it is history. So, I guess, you can say 2011 was a turning point year for me and if you’ve been following this site since before then, you could probably already tell that that change happened. Anyways, on to this great film.

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I’m surprised Darius Khondji’s beautiful cinematography didn’t get an Oscar nomination (he was nominated in 1996 for Evita and sites Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe as his greatest influences). Regardless, Khondji’s view of Paris matches the love Allen has for the city that emanates throughout every frame. The film opens with a montage that is similar to Allen’s opening for Manhattan, but instead of “Rhapsody in Blue”, it is set to Sidney Bechet playing “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere,” whose melancholy tune fits perfectly with gorgeous images of a day in Paris.

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I have to throw out this screencap that we Woody Allen fans know and love so well. I’ve written about Allen a lot, so I won’t go into his varied Academy Awards history yet again, but I will say those of us who love him, will always love him. We go to each one of his films every year and we will continue to do so as long as he provides us with the films to do so.

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We meet the film’s protagonist Gil Pender with his fiance Inez at what is clearly a location that inspire artist Claude Monet. Gil is a successful Hollywood screenwriter from California, who “never gave being a real writer a chance,” and is now in Paris with Inez and her uber-rich parents on a business trip. Gil is reminded of the past he gave up and his present -with a woman who has to be one of the most odious that Allen has ever created –  causes him to not only dwell on his own past, but on the part of the past he romanticizes the most – Paris in the 20s. Gil was originally supposed to be from the East Coast, but when longtime casting director Juliet Taylor suggested Wilson, Allen re-wrote the part to be from California, which he later felt made the character even richer.

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Allen has never been shy of making fun of pseudo-intellectuals and the uber-rich, but I don’t think he was ever as searing as he is with Inez and her parents (played by Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy and Rachel McAdams). I can’t help but think these characters must be based on some people Allen actually knows. They are borderline caricatures of the American nouveau-riche, who think nothing of the world other than for business purposes and who would honestly think nothing ill of the Tea Party. But, I must say, working in a neighborhood full of people like this, they’re more on the nose than I think most people would care to realize. It had been awhile since we got to see McAdams play someone so vile and she does it so well. I see women like this pretty much every shift at work and she is scary accurate.

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Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda play Paul and Carol Bates, friends of Inez from college, who are most definitely pseudo-intellectuals. If Woody Allen were playing Gil, he would insult them straight to their faces, but with Owen as Gil, he’s more vulnerable, doing his best not to scream around them. When he finally gets to one-up Paul, it is a glorious thing and well deserved  something Gil earned and a turning point for him as he goes through his personal journey of self-rediscovery. The one thing I will say for Paul is, even though he is an asshole, some of what he says is right on the money. Gil is working on a novel about a man who owns a nostalgia shop, which prompts Paul early on to diss what he calls, “Golden Age thinking,” – the “the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” This is the crux of the film, which explains everything that happens to Gil (as well as a character he will meet later on), and is the realization that Gil needs to come to, but on his own terms.

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After midnight Gil gets into a car and magically is transported into his Golden Age – Paris in the 20s. There he meets various luminaries: Cole Porter, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill, who is terrific, and Tom Hiddleston), Josephine Baker, Pablo Picasso, Djuna Barnes, Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody, in a scene-stealing performance), Man Ray, Luis Buñuel, T.S. Elliot, Gertrude Stein (Oscar-winner Kathy Bates), Henri Matisse, Leo Stein, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas. I’m not gonna lie, every time another one of these people popped up, I died a little of happiness. I studied Comparative Literature and French Literature in college and mostly focused on the late-19th and early-20th century in England, France and America, so basically this was like seeing my college degree come to life. I know a few people accused the film of just throwing these people out there for no reason. Firstly, why is that a problem? What is wrong with having a little fun with history? But also, I would disagree. Gil learns a little from each and every one of the people he meets from the past and in a way, it’s a metaphor for how we learn from the books and films and paintings that have become immortal, just, made literal. This is the kind of film only Woody Allen could really make and I think he pulls it off brilliantly. I also think it’s important to think about why Allen – and Gil – chose this time to get “lost” in. This era in Paris and these writers and artists – and everyone from the time, really – were known as The Lost Generation. They were in between WWI and the Great Depression. It was a strange time around the world, filled with the same kind of dissatisfaction that Gil now finds himself in.

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Owen Wilson gives what is probably the best performance of his career and earned a Golden Globe nomination for his work in the film. Gil starts out lost and confused and looking to the past to avoid his present. He learns from the past – literally – in order to move forward with his future. His character’s journey is slow, and it manifests in little things, but by the end of the film is such a wholly different person. One who is confident in what he loves and what he sees value in. He is a person who has come to terms with his past and is ready to take control of his present.

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I cannot even with Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway. Partially because he is just so damn attractive, but also because Stoll is so wholly engrossed in the part. I read a few reviewers that didn’t like this Hemingway because they felt it was, again, a caricature of Hemingway. The thing people are missing is that these versions – VERSIONS – of historical people are what Gil expects them to be. They are, as I view it, created by his impressions of the past and they are who he needs them to be. So this Hemingway speaks in short, concise sentences. He is all about what is noble and true and he likes alcohol, women and fighting. He is everything that Gil is not, yet they are the same. They are writers and they are haunted by their pasts. Gil learns a lot from Hemingway, even when he doesn’t realize it. Stoll received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his work in this film and damn I wish he had gotten an Oscar nod as well. Never gonna get over him.

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Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard gives a splendid performance as the fictional Adriana, a woman whom artists fall for and who Gil, of course, falls for as well. Adriana is the fantasy woman who Gil thinks he needs. She’s caring, yet sexual, she respects him, his talent and his opinions, but she also is her own woman. Eventually, though, Gil realizes that Adriana is just like him – a Golden Age thinker; for her La Belle Epoque (the turn of the century) was the best time in Paris and when the two find themselves there, Adriana, who is just as dissatisfied with her present and Gil is his, decides to stay there. This is when Gil realizes that no matter when you live, you will be slightly dissatisfied. He also realizes that that is okay, because he’s ready for that dissatisfaction. He’s ready to really live.

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There’s a treat in the film for actual French people – first lady Carla Bruni has a bit role as a tour guide at Versailles and comedian Gad Elmaleh plays a private detective who is hired by Inez’s father to follow Gil and winds up in a situation well out of his depth of experience.

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Lastly, I wanted to talk about Léa Seydoux as Gabrielle, an antiques dealer who also has a soft spot for Cole Porter. When Gil first meets her, he’s more interested in the records than he is her. When Inez comes and takes him away, he barely noticed Gabrielle, but the look on her face tells all. It’s a great small performance from Seydoux. She’s met the love of her life and he doesn’t even know it. When he comes back, you can see the excitement in her body language. At this point Gil has begun his transformation – although at this point he is smitten with Adriana, though he does manage to be slightly flirtatious with Gabrielle (whose name at this point we still don’t know). Eventually, Gil gets all he needs from the past, he move head first into his present, leaving Inez, deciding to stay in Paris and try to write what he’s always wanted to write. As often happens in cinema (because if life can’t be perfect, at least the movies can!), he meets Gabrielle on a bridge. They talk about Cole Porter again. He asks her name. Gabrielle. She lives nearby. He’s moving to Paris. He asks if she’s like a cup of coffee. Sure. It begins to rain. He’s concerned (Inez hated the rain). She says she doesn’t mind getting wet and that Paris is actually the most beautiful in the rain. Gil finally gets it. He’s where he’s supposed to be. In Paris. In the present. With Gabrielle in the rain. The rest, as they say, is history.

About cinemafanatic

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on May 6, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Good review. You could view it a bit as nostalgic and modest to a fault, but it still works because of how sharply-written Allen’s scripts are, and how well he can cast everybody in his movie. Even Owen Wilson, who turns to be the smartest-casting decision of the whole movie.

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