Having alighted there once before in the light-hearted musical Everyone Says I Love You, Allen starts as he means to go on by presenting Paris in a favourable, idealistic light, a place that nurtures the budding artist and intellectual. Opening with an idyllic run-through of the French capital, which, just like the introduction to Manhattan, acts as an ode to the city of lights, Midnight in Paris settles in to its story of a young, prosperous American couple visiting Paris and experiencing more than just rooftop wine tastings and tours of the Musée Rodin. Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), an exasperated Hollywood screenwriter looking to publish his first novel, is whisked away each night to the heydays of 1920s Paris where he is greeted by such celebrated visual and literary artists as Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dali, yet back in the present, his materialistic fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) rekindles her friendship with ex-flame Paul (Michael Sheen), a pompous know-it-all who is lecturing at the Sorbonne.
Whereas London posed as a background shift to visually, but unsuccessfully, mask lacklustre material four times over (Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream being two damp examples), Paris serves as refreshing, welcome inspiration, a gear shift for a director whose weathered career is jolted back to life, matching bouncy dialogue and a whimsically comical plot with the glossy climes of the sepia toned city of love. Paris, bathing in the warm glow of Darius Khondji’s cinematography and Cole Porter tunes, is here very much a character in the same vein Allen’s beloved New York City has been in a multitude of prior films, and it is accompanied by a wealth of talent who channel and bring to life their fictional, and in some cases non-fictional characters; in particular Adrien Brody’s larger than life Salvador Dalí and Corey Stoll’s verbose Ernest Hemingway, constantly chugging from the wine bottle. Yet, it is Owen Wilson, reminding us that for every Hall Pass and vacant canine caper he is still some semblance of a watchable actor, who excels as the Allen cipher, giving a giddy, dough-eyed performance.
Just as the film's poster meshes the image of a River Seine-wondering Wilson with homage to Van Gogh’s oil on canvas ‘Starry Night’, Midnight in Paris is very much a film made up of two interconnected halves; the routine relationship observations and semi-autobiographical nuances laced into the silky modern setting, and the sumptuous period pieces that span from 1920’s Paris to the golden era of La Belle Époque, as well as a brief 1700’s Versailles-set punch line, all infused by the evocation of Sonia Grande’s costumes and Anne Seibel’s luscious production designs.
Paralleling the narrative’s unexplained escape from the present to relatively simpler times, Allen arrives back at the style of filmmaking that met a number of his films with widespread acclaim, chiefly the nostalgic melancholy of Radio Days, and the juxtaposition of past and present flows as naturally as the freshly caught rain that trickles down the Parisian sidewalks.
If jet setting to European locales that appreciate his lowkey, shifting auteurist stature with reputable box office returns (though this has been his most profitable film stateside), means that Allen produces such exemplary films like this, then it is perhaps a sign that he can finally live up to the return to form that is promised but rarely conceived, and bears good tidings for his next work; this year’s Nero Fiddled, an ensemble comedy set in Rome.