Failing to break with tradition, Allen’s latest film Midnight in Paris, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, was shrouded in faint mystery regarding what it was actually about. Ostensibly, the storyline was described as something along the lines of ‘a romantic comedy about a family that goes to Paris because of business, and two young people who are engaged to be married have experiences there that change their lives’, which was indeed boosted by the initial trailers. But who were the characters listed as ‘Salvador’ and ‘Mr. Fitzgerald’, ‘Gertrude’ and ‘Ernest’ in the cast list? Coincidental name associations or Allen paying tribute to a handful of literary icons? The film played to high praise at its initial screening, and it soon emerged that Paris served as both a change of location and a new avenue for the director’s storytelling, pushing his usually conventional stories into the realms of time travel. Though not a science fiction per se, Midnight in Paris couples a contemporary story about Gil Pender (excellently played by Owen Wilson in the Woody Allen role), an aspiring novelist working on his first book, tagging along on his fiancée’s parent’s business trip, with a sentimental exploration of 1920s Paris, a period Gil admires.
Each night, Gil is somehow transported back in time where he revels in assorted meetings with such legendary American novelists as Ernest Hemingway and ‘The Great Gatsby’ scribe F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as celebrated painters Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. Stepping into their renowned shoes, relative newcomer Corey Stoll and rising talent Tom Hiddleston give immaculate interpretations of Hemingway and Fitzgerald respectively, painting them as, like Gil, gifted and aspiring artists on the cusp of publishing their great works. Also starring is Kathy Bates as writer, poet and art collector Gertrude Stein, who offers Gil guidance for his promising but malnourished novel, as well as a small but comical role for Adrien Brody as Surrealist painter Salvador Dali, embracing a rarely seen zany side to his usually stern side of acting.
Although toying with factual events and substantial historical figures is always a jarring soft spot for films (The Iron Lady being a garish recent example), Allen here is rarely concerned with profiling these people and projecting an objective series of facts, instead he is more interested in ruminating on a light-hearted what if? Here he joyously sidesteps any biographical elucidations, not attempting to alter precise events but merely intending to use them as a basis to explore his comical narrative macguffin and broad range of jokes. At one stage Gil gives Luis Buñuel the idea for what will eventually become his 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, despite Buñuel not understanding the perplexing concept.
Midnight in Paris, a quintessentially postmodern film, sees the director at his most playful in years, exploring the notion that the present is persistently dictated by the past, in sometimes more literal ways than one, and that Paris is more than just a majestic cultural hub, but a synonym for magic.