Cannes Movie Review: Midnight in Paris (2011)

Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Woody Allen returns to the Cannes Film Festival after a poor showing last year with You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Fortunately he has turned the tide 180-degrees with a film far more inventive, imaginative and charming. Midnight in Paris will open the 64th edition of the Cannes Film Festival with it’s magical love letter to the city of lights, centered on a man dreaming of the past who ends up finding direction for his future.

Opening with an extended, jazzy montage of Paris including all the familiar spots from the Arc de Triomphe to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles we first meet the film’s protagonist, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), making his case to his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), why Paris is the best place to live, and not just Paris, but Paris of the ’20s. The two are in France as they tagged along with Inez’s parents, both of which disapprove of Gil, and it doesn’t take long to realize Gil and Inez aren’t exactly a perfect match.

Gil is a successful Hollywood screenwriter, but he’s currently attempting his first novel, which has him questioning his talents. His attempt at something more ambitious and his time in Paris have conjured dreams of his idols, American literary giants F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. “Conjures,” as it turns out, is a perfect word as these two seemingly appear out of thin air thanks to a magical midnight taxi ride that takes the story back to Paris of the ’20s. The days of Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Hemingway (Corey Stoll) come alive, bringing with them a handful of recognizable faces from the past. Gil is soon swapping notes with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), evaluating the work of Pablo Picasso and suggesting movie ideas to Luis Bunuel. Suffice to say, he’s in heaven as his Golden Age is playing out before his eyes.

Gil’s life slowly twists and turns as his midnight fantasy and his daily excursions with Inez and her parents cause him to plant his roots deeper and deeper into the Paris soil, a city that obviously has captured his mind, body and soul. Where he’s losing touch with Inez, he’s finding a new way to love as his eye turns to Picasso’s mistress Adriana, played by the lovely Marion Cotillard.

Like any film dealing with the troubles of a writer, you look for connection to the screenwriter of the film and comparisons are easy to make as you can see where Allen’s career itself was inspired by the writers Gil, and seemingly Allen, both hold in high esteem. Midnight in Paris is also not without Allen’s jabs at portions of society that may ruffle his feathers. Republican Tea Party comments stirred laughter from all corners of the Cannes international audience and Michael Sheen playing the role of Paul, a pedantic know-it-all friend of Inez’s, is a consistent source of amusement, and Sheen absolutely crushes the part.

The cast is a perfect match for the high-spirited film. While the leads are left to carry the story the supporting actors offer those little touches that give the film its character. Adrien Brody as the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is a blast of energy in only a few short minutes with a “rhinoceros” infused introduction. Allison Pill is a burst of Southern energy as she plays Zelda Fitzgerald, the first person Gil meets as he’s swept back in time, and those that recently saw Thor will be surprised to see Tom Hiddleston in a completely different role as he plays F. Scott to Pill’s Zelda. Even France’s First Lady, Carla Bruni is given a role as a tour guide at the Rodin Museum where she offers a nice jab at Sheen’s Paul and serves as translator in an important moment for Gil.

As Adriana, Cotillard again brings a performance you can’t help but be entranced by. I was sure to note the moment she learns of Gil’s engagement and her silent reaction that’s not put into words until the scene that follows. McAdams plays Cotillard’s opposite, teaming for the second time with Wilson after Wedding Crashers. Her character is a hard one to peg as we’re only given a look at her through Gil’s eyes, but such is Midnight in Paris.

The musical interlude that begins the film plays almost as a wordless commercial for Paris. It’s an equally beautiful and lively sequence, but it’s also the polar opposite to the film itself. About an hour into the feature it becomes clear those opening moments played for so long because Allen’s tendency to fill each scene with as many words as possible won’t allow for anymore such day-dreaming. But it works, those opening images remain with you throughout the film as we explore Paris through Gil’s eyes. His wonder, amusement and frustration is felt by the audience, but in no way daunting as much as enlightening. You like him. You cheer for him and in some instances would like to fill his shoes.

Midnight in Paris is a romantic comedy of the sort you wish Hollywood would aspire to. It’s a comment on the rom-coms of today, even if unintended. But more than that, it’s a love story, captured in a city where love seems to roost, whether idealistically or romantically, but quite obviously in perpetuity. In this case it’s a surreal exploration of love, but inside it’s pseudo-reality, Allen has found a way to ask his characters and his audience to look at love with an eye for realism, caught in a story of imagination and magic.