Midnight In Paris

Even as Woody Allen’s star has waxed and waned in the last decade, he has always been adored in France. For his 41st film, the writer and director consummates this love affair for Midnight In Paris, a warm and funny fantasy about the eternal allure of the City of Light. Allen's valentine opens with a montage of postcard-pretty shots of boulevards wet by recent rain and an upbeat jazzy score as Owen Wilson explains, in his unmistakable Texan twang, how the French capital is one of the most exciting cities in the world. Wilson’s Gil is a Hollywood screenwriter whose only regret is that he didn’t stay in Paris years ago, when he had the chance, and hone his skills as a novelist. Instead, he returned to Los Angeles and became a hired hack for the movies, successful but unfulfilled.

Now returned on holiday with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her wealthy parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), Gil has fallen in love with Paris again. Looking for inspiration for his debut novel about a man who runs a nostalgia shop, Gil has taken to walking the streets in the rain, soaking in the city’s unique ambience (although Allen has somehow scoured the place of graffiti and his characters never once step in dog mess or get lost on the Metro). While her fiancée wanders aimlessly around the city, the much less enthusiastic Inez goes shopping for pricey antiques with her snippy mother and tours the galleries and museums with her old friends, pompous know-it-all Paul (an amusingly unbearable Michael Sheen) and his simpering wife Carol (Nina Arianda).

Gil can’t stand them. One evening, after a wine tasting, he takes another solo walk around the city. Slightly drunk, he takes a rest on a church steps as a clock strikes midnight. A vintage Peugeot drives up and the equally inebriated occupants beckon him into the car. They drive him off to a party where everyone appears to be dressed in vintage clothes and – the first clue that something is amiss – are smoking indoors. To his astonishment, Gil finds that he has somehow been dragged back through time to the era between the world wars, a time when exiled American writers and artists were drawn to the bohemian city. He has a wide-eyed chat with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), shares a bottle of wine with Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll) and gets a tutorial on writing from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates).

While passing an hour in Stein’s art-filled studio, he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a fashion designer who has been lover and muse to a series of artists, including Picasso and Modigliani. He falls in love, not only with the beautiful girl but with everything: the people, their ideas, the time and the place. They are so much more exciting than real life in 2010, with its blowhards and braggarts. So he returns again and again to his magical spot, where he can listen for the chimes and step into the past.

If Paris is the real star of the film, Wilson’s charming performance is the key to its considerable appeal. Gil is so awed by meeting his heroes, so excited about the possibility of interacting with genius, his enthusiasm radiates off the screen. Allen has considered the allure of history before, in films like Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo, exploring the notion that the past always seems much more vibrant and consistent than the time his characters live in. This time, the director uses the concept of time travel to explore Gil’s unease at his contemporary situation, inextricably tied to McAdams’ shallow wife-to-be, despised by her snooty parents and trapped in a job whose rewards are only financial. He is out of sorts and out of place, so why not go somewhere he can feel more at ease? But the more time he spends in the past, the less he wants to return to the present.

Allen doesn’t offer any explanations for his magical time-slip, instead using the caprice as a platform for his unassuming hero to interact with a parade of legends in cameo, including Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, Tom Cordier as Man Ray and Sonia Rolland as Joséphine Baker. The sole awkward misstep in Allen's otherwise graceful fantasy is a moment where Gil meets the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel and pitches him an idea for a movie where the guests at a swanky dinner party find themselves unable to leave. In a throwaway scene, Gil goes from being a fortunate witness to history to actively offering his heroes tips on how to do the very things he admires them for doing.

For a long time, it seemed that Allen was so bereft of inspiration he might have taken the wittering of an oddly-dressed visitor from the future to heart. How else would you explain Cassandra's Dream, a film whose time we can only hope will never come. With Midnight in Paris, the director puts a stop to a long run of deeply mediocre films, making the most of a dazzling, fun idea and a cast on top form.

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