Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen 2011)

Woody Allen periodically gets "he's back" praise though really he hasn't been back in twenty or so years. Midnight in Paris is the latest trigger for such claims and it's as hard to see why as it has been with any of the previous ones. The film is really nothing more than a Twilight Zone episode complete with a stated moral, only at more than four times the length. Allen goes to little trouble expanding this and instead simply pads - his usual artist-wannabe protagonist, an annoying pedant, a repressive (but not repressed) woman and so forth. He even resorts to almost four minutes of nothing but pure postcard-pictoral views of the city - really he should have been paying more attention to Atget.

The 20s Paris we get in the film is up front about being a fantasy and it would be easy to write off the whole thing as the protagonist's dream except for a brief scene of another character also being pulled into the past (quite inexplicably into what appears to be Louis XIV's period). The problem isn't that it's a fantasy but that it's one aimed at a modern American audience. That's why none of the historical figures are French except for a passing mention of Cocteau - the rest are all American or Spanish. Where's oh let's go with Proust, Artaud, Giradoux, Perse, Colette, Gide, Mauriac, Bernanos or even squeezing in Simenon and Celine just among the writers. And as a filmmaker shouldn't Allen have found just some room for Renoir, Gance, L'Herbier, Clair, Epstein, Dulac, Carne, Feyder, etc? I have no idea which of these were in Paris at this time but it's plausible for most of them and anyway the chronology of the people actually in the film doesn't match either. (And yes I know Simenon and Feyder were Belgian but they lived in France so I'm leaving it.)

But the critical point comes up with the Surrealists, bunches of whom were definitely in Paris and definitely high profile. In Allen's Paris we get Dali who just spouts silliness and then Ray and Bunuel who have very little dialogue at all. (Though Bunuel is given the idea for The Exterminating Angel in a bit reminiscent of Marty giving Chuck Berry rock 'n' roll in Back to the Future.) In other words the Surrealists are just dismissed as window-dressing where we're shown none of their anti-clericism, on-again off-again relations with the Communists, epater-le-bourgeouise tactics, blatant if pecuilar eroticism, etc. But then Allen goes out of his way to avoid politics to the point that Hemingway's "war" sounds almost abstract. This Paris has no crippled veterans, no Action Francaise, no socialists or anarchists.

But so what? Isn't Midnight in Paris just a charming fantasy film? Maybe but Allen doesn't have the light touch needed for this. He did at one point (just think Zelig or Stardust Memories or Purple Rose of Cairo) but that's long gone. It's fine that he never explains the mechanics of Midnight's situation - why for instance does Gil return every night but his past-girlfriend get to choose to stay? Why does somebody drive out every night to pick up our protagonist? What do they think they're doing? Doesn't much matter. But one stumble is the book Gil finds that's his past-girlfriend's diary - apparently this is the actual handwritten diary though that's never made clear and I just thought it was a printed book until that started to seem implausible. It's way too arbitrary that Gil will stumble across this and then be able to recognize it even though he doesn't know French. And of course that the tour guide will translate just the right section seemingly at random. Maybe this is the problem at being four times the length of a Twilight Zone episode - it's hard to stay light or clever when you're trying to keep up the running time.