Guide to SKOPJE

Three stars for “Midnght in Paris”


Who has not dreamed, for one reason or another, of being able to travel back into the past, with a bonus option of being able to choose the exact location of his travel through time? We all have past mistakes we want to correct. Some are more ambitious and socially oriented – kill Hitler or Milošević before they get the chance to make any major mischief. Others are cultural, like being able to see Foreman and Ali slug it out in Kinshasa, the Beatles in concert, and what not.

Ask Woody Allen, who has some experience in the matter of transplanting his neurotic self into other eras and locations – Tsarist Russia during Napoleonic Wars in “Love and Death” comes to mind, of course – and he would return to Paris in the 1920s. Well, that is what Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), his latest alter-ego in this year’s “Midnight in Paris” (Allen wrote and directed the film), would like to do.

Gil is e Hollywood screenwriter, specialized in rewrites and reworks of other people’s screenplays, with ambition to become a “serious” writer, and he is in Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams). He is failing in his continuing campaign to convince Inez to move to Paris, in his view the greatest city in the world. Inez, on the other hand, wants to go shopping, clubbing, and then marry Gil so they can live their American dream in a house on Malibu.

As Paul (Michael Sheen), Inez’s friend from the college years and art history professor, whom they shall meet in Paris, helpfully observes, Gil suffers from the “Golden Age thinking” condition which makes us think that life was much better in some past age, or, as Paul puts it, ” a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present”.

It’s not that Gil is without problems. He believes he is wasting his talent on screenplays (which pay off handsomely, while we are at it).  He is writing a novel, but his fear of possible failure is so bad that he wouldn’t let anyone take a look at it. His future in-laws are right wingers that can’t stand him, while the girl he is about to marry has little understanding for his needs. Actually, as the story proceeds, we are increasingly aware that Gil and Inez are slowly growing apart and that they didn’t have many things in common in the first place.

Gil, as a potential ex-pat in Paris, is not really into all the standard tourist activities and does his best to avoid the variety of Versailles visits, wine tastings and other finer offerings for the world traveller that Inez is trying to drag him to. On the other hand, he uses every such opportunity to sabotage the long boring monologues by Paul – who is one of those obnoxious experts on any given field, be it Rodin’s marital status or the comparative advantages of 1959 over 1961 merlot. Gil is interested in a different Paris expirience. He wants the city that is most beautiful when it rains, the city in which the authors of the “lost generation” actually created the art instead of just enjoying it, and filled the time between two masterpieces by trying to get in the pants of their friends’ and rivals’ lovers and mistresses.

Ultimately, and without any special effects, wormholes in the space-time continuum or other necessities of proper time-travel, Gil will get his wish – all true wishes come trough, don’t they – on one drunken night, and he will find himself making small-talk to F. Scot– Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill), with Cole Porter providing the entertainment on the piano. The company is getting increasingly impressive. By the end of the film, Gil will also meet and hang around with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Man Ray, Luis Bunuel, and other luminaries of that day and age.

Their main role, however, is purely decorative, and they provide a series of more or less strange anecdotes that aim to illustrate the spirit of the Paris at that point in time. They are mere caricatures that act in a way that Gil, and most of us, in fact, would expect them to act. Hemingway is a total macho who just wants to pick a fight. Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody at his delightful best) is a total ego—trip obsessed with rhinoceroses, and Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Van) is still far from the days of his surrealist glory. Hemingway and Stein will ultimately prove useful, with advice and encouragement on Gil’s novel, but also with great insight on his private life.

The most important of his new acquaintances, however, will be Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a muse/lover of Picasso’s (formerly also of Georges Braque and Amedeo Modigliani) who, quite contrary to Gil, finds the 1920s to be a total bore and generally useless, and that Belle Époque was, in fact, the best time to live in Paris. As we will learn later, Belle Epoque greats are equally dissatisfied with their own historic period and would gladly return to the Renaissance, if they had that opportunity.

I would stop retelling the story here, to avoid spoiling it for you. We should note, however, that Gil will ultimately understand that Paul was right, that there is no golden age and that one should live in the present. Gil will accept that challenge.

The actual story and the moral of the film are, still, of secondary importance. This is a film dedicated to Paris, as many people have noted, Allen’s love letter to the city. Allen, who is not known for his cinematography and great visual achievements of his films (we could hardly call him, say, John Ford of the urban centres, or something along that line), pays little attention to the physical beauty of Paris. We do get, at the opening credits, a series of postcard picture of Paris that we all know (even those like yours truly here, who have never been to Paris). We see very little of the city, but we do feel its presence and we do hear a lot of how beautiful and magnificent it is. Indeed, Adriana puts it best – “That Paris exists and anyone could choose to live anywhere else in the world will always be a mystery to me”.

What I want to say is that, this is a film about Paris as it is. If you like some other city better – New York, Berlin, Istanbul, Sarajevo, Thessaloniki or Smallville, feel free to make your own film about it. Allen made the film about the city he likes the most. It is certainly no one of the great masterpieces of our age, the characters may not have been developed well, but it is a funny and pleasing and, to a certain extent, an educational piece of work. Also on the plus side, it does have a cameo by Carla Bruni (which for some reason everybody thinks is a big deal), so there is another good reason to recommend it. (Were we distributing stars, it would have gotten three out of possible five). Enjoy.

Dejan Georgievski