Earlier this week I was lobbed a cinematic soft ball, but instead of pitying the lack of a challenge I would like to instead praise the pitcher for his art of ease, the difficulty in doing something with masterful casualness. I'm talking of course about Woody Allen and his entirely easy-going Midnight in Paris. The film, which opened the 64th Festival de Cannes with a welcome relaxed sigh rather than a glamourous ejaculation, strands an American (Owen Wilson) in Paris that is moneyed to the point of genericness and saddles him with an obnoxious fiance (Rachel McAdams), her pined-for old professor (Michael Sheen), and intolerable in-laws. But just as it dawns that this Paris is decidedly banal, that these people are whiny and awful, Allen up and decides he doesn't care to invest the city in 2010 with any false charm—and the film unexpectedly jumps into the past and takes Owen Wilson with it.
The segue is as effortless as the filmmaking–a cut and we're in the 1920s hobnobbing with artistic celebrities who are no less pedantic—though certainly more interesting and charismatic—than the 21st century Americans and English condescendingly traipsing around a decadent, interchangeable European capital. A serenely functional reverse shot and we're in the past; an ellipsis and we're back in the present—Alain Resnais would be proud.
Wilson plays a Hollywood hack yearning to finish a novel, move to Paris, and embrace a romantic artistic lifestyle calling back to the heyday of the 20s and, through the film's lackadaisical whimsy, has to confront that precise fantasy in the form of exclaiming Dalí, an aphoristic Hemingway, the literary advice of Gertrude Stein, and more A-list cameos. Between the intellectual snobbery of his fiancé's milieu in the present and the authentic creative genius of the idealized past Wilson is all plucky earnestness—he's simply a big fan, sans pretension, and honestly trying to work.
The film moves with ease between these pylons of pomposity, creation and appreciation. From the movement we get the transparent simplicity of cutting between the exaggerated-fantasy-present—intolerable—to exaggerated-fantasy-past—discovery and exhilaration. We get a magnificent close-up from Wilson—surely the film's finest moment—as his baffled face takes in the film's unexpected slide into the past, a face that we see being won over—but not completely, only semi-convinced at Allen's fantasy, as we are—to wonder and pleasure. We get Marion Cotillard, who plays the non-intellectual who comes between Wilson's wonder and his disbelief. And while she, like Rachel McAdams, carries an air about her character of a simplification, a construction or projection of Wilson's, the actress wins the battle in advance of later carefree, vague moments of charm with an early series of close-ups when Wilson first meets her, revealing a rich, self-inquisitive character, setting her up (and later paying off) as she an itinerant traveller in life, much like him. We get the no-frills honesty of a semi-story of thesis, antithesis and synthesis formed around simple cuts and an unadorned, even undeveloped script—where fights are almost fights, romance is almost romance...the film a sketch of ideas casually held together not by the location, which could be set anywhere, but the charming idea and lack of gravity of it all. All is perhaps signaled in the unimpressive yet utterly lovely pre-credits opening of establishing shots of Paris—but a gray-skied, somewhat vacant and uninteresting Paris that transitions to rain before moving to start the story. Yes, why not make a story here, and if it's not working here, now, why not move to the past?
The aggravation between Midnight in Paris' two halves—the consternation of the present, with Wilson blind to its incompatibility, and the flattery of the past, where Wilson is also blind but this time to its rosy romanticism—obviously sets the scene for a revelation that his mooning for the past is foolish. But the didaticism of the story's supposed lesson about the fallacies of glorifying the past—a conclusion from the film that obviously is no less chiding than the hilariously pretentious tones of Sheen's bearded English suitor or the forced poetry of Hemingway's utterances—is submerged beyond recognition by Allen's disarming, effortless revelation that the present won't do either. It is a surprisingly subtle point, and seems more so upon reflection. As the festival begins in proper, and the heavy-weight auteurs are pulled out to display new attempts at masterpieces, Allen's film both as filmmaking and as philosophy (and really, with a good filmmaker one is the same as the other) will stand aside from the crowd—not aloof, but discomfited and casual in a very human way.