Paris in the dream time

In terms of box-office receipts over its first cinema run in the United States, Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s biggest hit yet. And it is, indeed, a delightful movie. Let’s not get into the Woody-fan game of “it’s his best since …”, but it does have echoes of previous films such as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Alice, which contained an element of magic.

Owen Wilson is the lead, and if he’s off-putting as an actor (he can be thoroughly annoying), don’t worry. He’s been given a proper script to work with here and he acquits himself very well. He’s one of those Woody Allen types, the creative person (in this case, a writer) struggling with the demands of art or, if that’s been dealt with, the rigours of making money as an artist.

At first it doesn’t seem that Wilson’s character, Gil, is going to have such problems. He arrives in Paris with his wife-to-be and his in-laws-to-be and, despite the psychological trauma that that situation portends, they all appear to be pretty well-off members of the haute bourgeoisie Allen favours as characters in his movies. Gil’s problem is not the money (or not yet) but rather the bohemian-arty side to his personality. The dreamer, you might say.

Wide-eyed wonder

For deep in Gil’s soul is the desire to write, and to write well — he can’t give up his artistic dreams, even when his fiancée rather diminishes his writerly pretentions and her parents are likely to feel that he’s decidedly flaky in this respect. But Paris itself will come to Gil’s rescue, or a Paris of the imagination will kick in and whisk him to an era when the best literary minds of the US were flocking to Paris: Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein. And, of course, these Americans became deeply involved with all the other artists who had made Paris their home, such as Picasso.

There’s a charmingly wide-eyed wonder in Midnight in Paris, as we go with Gil into this other world, this past that still lives. There’s also a fairly hard-nosed sense that art isn’t necessarily easy, and that artists need more than the patronage (in both senses) of the well-heeled. It’s a romance, too, as a Woody Allen movie usually is, even if the romance goes wrong. But the conventional elements of romance are minimised, in a way, by the big romance — that of Gil and Paris, or the tempting, high-modernist but also rather louche Paris of this particular story.

Midnight in Paris is a fairy tale about art itself, and it’s done with a lovely lightness of touch. The kvetching cynic that Allen so often portrays is absent, and the dream — or the reverie — is all.

Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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