While Woody Allen’s work since his classic years (1976-89) has been extremely hit and miss, 2011’s Midnight in Paris, part of his European period, shows him in revitalised form by borrowing magic realism elements from his Purple Rose of Cairo to create a comment on nostalgia and its essential shallowness.
Owen Wilson plays Allen-substitute Gil Pender, a screenwriter holidaying in Paris, enrapt with the romantic history of the city, whereas his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) is less engaged. During a late night scroll Gil stumbles upon wormhole to 1920’s Paris and, starting with F. Scott Fitzgerald, the opportunity to meet the great artists of the era.
The characterisations of the artists themselves are extremely fun – the unstable Zelda Fitzgerald, the ultra-masculine Ernest Hemingway (“who wants to fight?”) and the obviously surreal Salvador Dali.
Midnight in Paris holds up Paris in an almost mythical light: Its opening montage of the iconic sights besmirched by the effects of modernity, of traffic and clutter and the like, shot in harshly over-exposed digital, is juxtaposed with the tinted, artfully shadowed pastels of the past. Narratively the film amusingly begins to eat itself near the end, concluding that while dreamers on occasion need to be realists, it does not mean that they can no longer dream.
The flighty dreamer Adriana played by Marion Cotillard is the kind of romantic that draws comparisons to Amélie, and Cotillard herself as a French actress is no doubt sick of the tired comparison between her and Tautou. But the fact remains she is a dreamer, a rarity in itself as demonstrated by a pornography seller’s quote: “These are hard times for dreamers”.
In the 1920’s dreamers were less rarefied: Gil, Dali, Buñuel, and most artists in general can be categorized as “ones who dream”. Midnight in Paris’ theory of Golden Age-thinking (believing that a different era is better than one’s own) may have inspired Jeunet’s idealized vision of Paris, despite the modern technology it has a palpable classic vibe.