Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen

The Art of Concealing Art

I’m sure you’ve noticed that a work of art, in order to be hailed as great by critics and academics (not that there is much difference these days), must be divorced from reality, involved, uninvolving and plain boring. Don’t you ever get the eerie feeling that the purpose of contemporary art is to punish us for sins we haven’t committed? Think of all the extraordinary, enchanting and exhilarating books on which you’ve wasted your time and money. Take contemporary classical music: Doesn’t it make you want to explore other kinds of music, or stick to the old masters for as long as you live? Contemporary painting? Oh no, not that again!

Why have present-day artists turned their backs on us?

I’m afraid this is one of those mysteries we won’t solve till Doomsday.

All we can do is console ourselves with the thought that there are still some auteurs, especially in movieland, who understand that their work, however original, profound, sophisticated or multidimensional it might be, is like a dish, which must taste good to stir our imagination.

In order to make his highest-grossing film yet, director-actor-writer-screenwriter, etc. Woody Allen morphed into a pastry chef extraordinaire and baked a mouthwatering French-style cake for us – a creamy, luscious, seductive, almost decadent cake of a movie composed of three magic, different-tasting layers.

The plot of Midnight in Paris (2010) is at once simple and complex, realistic and unreal.

Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), an idealistic Hollywood screenwriter, and Inez (Rachel McAdams), his materialistic fiancée, are in Paris vacationing with Inez’s wealthy, philistine parents, John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy). Gil and Inez are a mismatched couple. Gil, who is struggling with his first novel, adores Paris, especially in the rain (Can you picture how drop-dead gorgeous this city is in the rain?). Inez, like her parents, detests Paris, especially in the rain (What’s wonderful about getting wet?). Worse yet, she wants Gil to give up on literature and concentrate on his lucrative but stupefying job in Hollywood. By chance, Gil and Inez meet their friends, Paul Bates (Michael Sheen), and his wife Carol (Nina Arianda). Inez idolizes Paul (because He got invited to lecture at the Sorbonne! He’s an expert on French wine! etc.), but Gil dismisses him as a pseudo-intellectual. One night, Gil wanders off by himself and becomes lost in the back streets of Paris. On the stroke of midnight a vintage Peugeot filled with revelers in 1920s attire draws up beside him, and soon after Gil meets many legendary artists of the Jazz Age (his favorite period), such as Cole Porter, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Luis Buňuel, Salvador Dalí, etc. He also befriends the quintessential French femme fatale, Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Interestingly, Gil and Adriana go further back in time, to the Belle Époque, where Adriana stays forever. Gil eventually discovers that Inez is having an affair with Paul, breaks his engagement with her, and settles in Paris. In the last scene he bumps into Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), a charming and ingenuous French girl. Gil is delighted to find that she loves Paris too, especially in the rain.

Now, let me take a knife, slice a piece of the Midnight in Paris cake and examine it layer after layer, from top to bottom.

The top layer, which everyone can see because it’s on the surface, is invitingly fluffy, sweet and light – so light that the first bit almost immediately melted in my mouth. It’s full of various attractions, such as the self-recommending views of Paris, also in the rain; the atmospheric soundtrack evoking the famed Parisian chic and charme; the glittering interiors; the scintillating dialogues, brimming over with Woody Allen’s cockeyed humor; the brilliant acting; the ooh-la-la women (with Adriana oozing sex appeal from every pore); and the impressive scenes – e.g. the one where the delightfully kooky Salvador Dal-EE (thumbs-up to Adrian Brody!) invites Gil for a drink (You like the shape of the rhinoceros?... I paint the rhinoceros. I paint you. Your sad eyes… Your big lips melting over the hot sand…); where Gil interrupts Paul’s lecture at the museum to give his unorthodox interpretation of a Picasso painting; or where he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at a party (Zelda, speaking with a Southern drawl: You have a glazed look in your eye. Stunned. Stupefied. Anesthetized. Lobotomized.)

In sum, the top layer is all glitter, gloss and glam, and there is no doubt that it’s responsible for the film’s broad appeal and commercial success. But then, there is always more to a Woody Allen movie than meets the eye, which is why we need to look below the surface.    

The middle layer, though frankly not as eye-catching, sweet or instantly appealing, will delight especially those interested in literature and fine arts, because Midnight in Paris is shot through with cultural and literary allusions. For example, it’s true that Salvador Dalí had a passion for rhinos and was friends with Luis Buňuel, having collaborated with him on the avant-garde film Un Chien Andalou. Gertrude Stein was an arbiter of literary taste and an art collector. Cole Porter played the piano and wrote many marvelous songs (three of which are featured in the film). Pablo Picasso had plenty of mistresses and muses (though there was no Adriana among them). Ernest Hemingway believed Zelda Fitzgerald was a destructive influence on Scott (and he openly said so in A Movable Feast). Luis Buňuel made a film about a group of people at a dinner party who, for some inexplicable reason, can’t bring themselves to leave (The Exterminating Angel), etc.

And yet, artists are fabulists who shouldn’t be taken too seriously. There is no evidence, for example, that James Joyce, though he did live in Jazz Age Paris, ate sauerkraut and frankfurters, as Gil says. But then, didn’t Nabokov say that an artist, as opposed to a witness, must tell the truth and anything but the truth? For more allusions, see the Atlantic’s Cultural Cheat Sheet. 

The bottom layer is inconspicuous, bittersweet and a little spicy, like dark chili chocolate, and it invites us to reflect on Gil Pender the writer.

But, first of all, what do I mean by a writer?

A person who “has a way with words”? who has had their writings published? or maybe who has completed a course in creative writing?

Not at all.

When I say writer, I mean someone who, broadly speaking, studies life, cuts through the smoke and mirrors, and shares his or her vision, after transforming it into art through imagination and style, with the reader.

Gil Pender, unlike a natural-born writer, doesn’t see, not to mention understand, what’s going on around him. He is serenely unaware, for example, that his fiancée patronizes him. That she is having an affair with Paul, as Corey Stoll’s character put it, right before his eyes. That sooner or later she will become his worst enemy. Or that Adriana has a crush on him, as he later discovers from her diary.

There is no doubt, then, that this whole bittersweet adventure in Paris is an eyeopener for Gil Pender, a kind of life-changing experience. That’s all well and good, but will Gil outgrow his childish ways and naive nostalgic longings for the past? Will he learn to live in the present and pay attention to important details? Will he realize his ambition to become a writer? The last scene, where he meets Gabrielle who, like him, loves Cole Porter’s songs and Paris in the rain, seems to suggests just that. But here is where I think the director lured us into a trap. How easy it is to be charmed, or even seduced, by the magic of this scene – the chance encounter on the Seine, at night, with the spirit of romance and love hovering in the air – and to miss this little thing, a seemingly unimportant detail that might shatter all illusions. Woody Allen is a precise filmmaker, also in matters of timing. Enough said. Bon appétit.


©  by Krzysztof Mąkosa


Director and writer: Woody Allen

Starring: Owen Wilson (Gil Pender), Rachel McAdams (Inez)

Supporting actors: Kurt Fuller (John, Inez’s father), Mimi Kennedy (Helen, Inez’s mother) Michael Sheen (Paul Bates), Nina Arianda (Carol Bates), Marion Cotillard (Adriana), Léa Seydoux (Gabrielle), Carla Bruni (Museum guide), Tom Hiddleston (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Alison Pill (Zelda Fitzgerald), Corey Stoll (Ernest Hemingway), Kathy Bates (Gertrude Stein), Adrien Brody (Salvador Dalí), Adrien de Van (Luis Buňuel), Tom Cordier (Man Ray), Marcial di Fonzo (Pablo Picasso), Yves Heck (Cole Porter), Yves-Antoine Spoto (Henri Matisse), Vincent Menjou Cortes (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), Olivier Rabourdin (Paul Gauguin), François Rostain (Edgar Degas), et al.


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