Thursday, 20 October 2011

Review of Woody Allen's 'Midnight in Paris' (2011) - A superficial hallucination of a film


Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’ – a superficial hallucination of a film

I have to say I am getting tired of the hype surrounding Woody Allen’s films. As much as I love his early work, particularly the witty script and analytical psychology of ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Manhattan’ (the definitive part of his film career, one might say), his recent films have all left me cold. Take Allen’s new film, ‘Midnight in Paris’ with Owen Wilson that I saw recently at glorious Phoenix Cinema (@phoenixcinema) last week. This film was, to me a poor effort for many reasons. First and foremost I thought the story was altogether one-dimensional, overly sentimental and nostalgic and rather predictable for Woody Allen. We follow Owen Wilson as a successful film screenwriter who wants to get back to literary ‘roots’, so to speak, and realise his dream of writing fiction for a living. On a suffocating trip to Paris with his overbearing fiancé (with whom he has seemingly nothing in common apart from his lust for her body and her lust for his money) and his equally oppressive in-laws, he escapes into the Parisian night to re-walk the paths of the great European writers before him for inspiration against his writer’s block. From the start of the film, he is painted obtusely to be a writer with a classic continual idolisation of the past, in this case 1920s Paris: the ambiance, music, art, literature etc. We gather all this information in about twenty minutes. I think even on writing this you can work out that in the end he will (a) realise his fiance is not right for him, (b) un-block his writer’s block ,(c) stop living in the past. And all this unsurprisingly takes place. At a push we may guess that he probably come to replace his fiancé with someone new who he has more in common with, perhaps someone in Paris? Yes, this happens too.

How all of this happens in the film is unusual, a surprise to be sure. Each midnight, Wilson’s character is transported in time to 1920s where he meets all manners of artists, musicians, patrons and writers. They all mill around the story as it progresses – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, John Steinbeck, Edgar Degas, Toulouse Lautrec etc. The story appears to wind around these character cameos, most of the time superficially delineating them (Dali sees ‘rhinos’ in everything, Steinbeck relates everything to the stark realities of war etc.), each sycophantic appearance getting a self-congratulatory chuckle from the audience. Through meeting these artists and writers, getting his book appraised by Stein, and meeting someone in the 1920s who idolises the late 1800s, Wilson’s character accomplishes everything in the above paragraph. The irony is Allen shows a writer realising he shouldn’t live in the nostalgia of the past by creating a film that well and truly depends on nostalgia of the past. Allen delights in the costumes, the music, the scenery and backdrops, the cars and of course the cameos, all executed with precision and a directorial eye for detail, yet in their use these attributes amount to nothing more than a sentimental, stereotypical view of Paris: the city of love and romance where esoteric artists and writers walk the streets, entertain in indulgent parties and ponder and drink to oblivion in quaint, basic bars. Mythical Paris, where everyone is beautiful, liberal-minded and fascinating in personality, conversation and talent. While Allen idealises Paris we are supposed to be interested in a writer learning not to idealise Paris. It is utterly ridiculous. Lovely to behold, but a hallucination. Marginalised in Allen’s 1920s Paris is the poverty, racism and prostitution of the day. One might argue that there was no need for these serious issues to be handled but I would say that there was so little to this flimsy film that it could have done with some depth somewhere along the way.

Indeed this is not the first time that we have seen this of the veteran director, Woody Allen. To some extent what irritated me about ‘Match Point’ (2005), was his cultural stereotyping of London’s inhabitants – cold characters with a grey sensibility and a great deal of reservation accompanying. As if someone on the Deathstar has removed their costume and acted the same in a London character drama. In addition it was a poor film with little of the real tension it claimed. ‘Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona’ (2008) showed Allen on directorial holiday in Spain. Again, we saw classic stereotypes: Javier Bardem as the passionate, charismatic, cultured Spaniard with heavy soulful eyes in touch with all deep matters of the heart, able to awaken such passions in the holidaymakers from the US. Penelope Cruz as the free-thinking, dynamic, past lover of Bardem’s character, also led by the heart and her turbulent bipolar emotions. I remember my Spanish assistant being irritated with the stereotyping, that Bardem and Cruz should lower themselves to these roles and that Allen, a favourite director of hers, should in turn create such a superficial film. At the time, it didn’t bother me so much. It was when I saw ‘Whatever Works’ in 2009 that I realised that this director is best in New York, or at least in the USA. He is at home there and he creates intelligent films, his best works, there in that city we all know he knows so well. ‘Whatever Works’ wasn’t perfect, it also suffered like ‘Midnight in Paris’ from an anticlimactic ending. Still it was a much better film and made the recent piece a silly bubble by comparison.   

Jana Manuelpillai
http://thouartsgood.blogspot.com/


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