The first five minutes of the new Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, is a sheer revelation! No, it's not the dialogue or the acting that catches your attention up front. The attraction is simple, sublime and instantly reels you into the film with a giant hook. That's because the first five minutes or so of this film is a montage of Parisian scenes with nothing but music underneath. Scenes that capture your soul before the first word of dialogue is spoken. Beautiful shots of Parisian cafes, the Eiffel Tower, people strolling along the Seine, I.M. Pei's entrance to the Louvre, shoppers passing the Dior store, Versailles, gargoyles, the Tuileries, Maxim's and – best of all for me – the Opera Garnier. Iconic images that immediately envelope the viewer and sweep one longingly into the romance and awe of the one and only Paris (said in a hushed whisper). In other words - and to steal a line from another film - this one had me at hello!
Admittedly, I'm not really a big fan of Woody Allen films. Oh I've seen a healthy number of them to be sure, but I can't say that any of his previous offerings have made their way into my home DVD collection. Still, I'm always open to a film with a great cast, promising scenery, or a clever script and this one doesn't disappoint. The basic premise . . . Hollywood screenwriter turned newbie novelist, Gil (played by Owen Wilson), is on vacation in Paris with his fiancée, Inez (played by Rachel McAdams) and her parents. It seems that Gil longs to break away from his successful life in Hollywood and embrace the simple life of a struggling Parisian writer. Indeed the sights, sounds, and smells of Paris spark Gils imagination and aid in his dreams of joining the ranks of great novelists from the past who spent time in Paris during the "golden era" of the 1920s. A time in history that Gil believes is far superior to the present day. Needless to say, Inez is not very keen on this idea and wants Gil to snap out of it, simply have fun in Paris, and - sooner rather than later - settle into a comfortable life in Southern California. So begins the journey.
Gil and Inez soon bump into another young couple - "friends" from America - who provide welcome companionship for Inez but an irritating distraction for Gil. One evening, in his attempt to escape the sightseeing and endless ramblings from their friend Paul (wonderfully played by Michael Sheen), Gil finds himself walking alone along the streets of Paris, lost and a little drunk, at midnight. Out of the blue, an old fashioned limousine pulls up and the inhabitants beckon Gil to join them. He does and this chance encounter propels Gil into the past . . . indeed into the very time period of his dreams. None other than the golden era when artists and writers from all over the world converged upon Paris as their Mecca for art, literature, fashion, and entertainment. Gil thinks it's a joke when he immediately meets icons like Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, and Ernest Hemingway. But his doubt quickly dissipates and his fascination peaks as night after night he encounters an array of famous personalities - mostly famous American expat members from the "Jazz Age" who swarmed to Paris in the 1920s.
At this point in the film, you immediately recognize the cleverness of Woody Allen and appreciate his filmmaking skills. For the rest of the movie, Allen takes you and Gil on a journey through time to encounter the likes of Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, and other recognizable members of the "Lost Generation." Watching the film becomes a guessing game as you long to see who shows up next and delight in your ability to recognize everyone and put them into their proper context. You ask yourself, which novels had Fitzgerald and Hemingway finished at this particular point in time? What period was Picasso going through artistically? Surely this is before Gertrude Stein pens The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, right? The viewer experiences many wonderful revelations and draws upon many references that - as with the opening montage - renders you not a detached voyeur, but rather a willing participant drawn directly into the adventure. It's a sort of sensory experience that you feel in a very personal way.
Along the way, we also meet Adriana (played by Marion Cotillard). A poor but beautiful woman of 1920s Paris - model and lover of Picasso, romantic distraction for Hemingway, and fashion student of Coco Chanel - Adriana (like Gil) longs for a more romantic era. In her view, Paris' La Belle Époque of the 1890s is her vision of the perfect time period. Her dreams of that era propel her and Gil into that bygone world, complete with the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, and Gauguin. Now we begin to see a pattern and, like the film's protagonist, start to understand the possible reason for this fascinating journey.
But that's enough of this synopsis or else I run the risk of ruining all the fun. Suffice it to say that the performances are top notch, as each actor literally inhabits their assigned character. Particular standouts include Kathy Bates, Corey Stall, Alison Pill, and an all too brief but brilliant cameo by Adrien Brody. The most surprising of all is Owen Wilson, who turns out to be the perfect modern day Woody Allen protagonist. In a way, he channels the on-screen persona of the obsessive, compulsive, contemplator that Allen so skillfully honed for himself as an actor in his previous films. In short, this 90-minute excursion into our cultural past is not only enjoyable, but also enlightening as a remembrance of things past and a reflection upon our own perceptions of the time in which we live. Well Mr. Allen, you've won me over this time!
Sylvia Bennett, a passionate movie-goer and public television executive, reviews movies for WWN