Woody Allen loves Paris. Is it reciprocal?
It was almost midnight in Paris, which seemed as good a time as any to see "Midnight in Paris."
It wasn't as if I could have avoided it even if I wanted to. Woody Allen's new romantic comedy came out in this country a week before it did in the U.S., and since then has been as steady a presence as the corner brasserie. Three separate theaters within walking distance of my hotel were showing it, a feat of ubiquity that hasn't happened since Jerry Lewis hung up his acting shoes.
Besides, there was an eerie art-parallels-life component to seeing the film -- which tells of Owen Wilson's malcontent screenwriter luxuriating in a contemporary and period Paris, in contrast, he suggests, to the spiritual deadness of Southern California -- in the city in which it takes place.
Of all the potential movie-world settings, few have been so entwined with their real-life counterparts. In fact, the city shots that open Allen's film include a street scene in front of the theater from which I was watching the movie, causing the audience to let out a reaction somewhere between amused and tittering. (The response was no doubt repeated at another theater down the street that's also portrayed in the montage.) Woody surely had a feeling his movie could play in these theaters, so he cleverly slid in an homage.
As the film went along, the response was warm. But the warmth was mostly reserved for the parlor comedy about period figures such as Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dali. The Paris beauty shots didn't evoke much of a reaction among much of the crowd; in fact, judging by the chatter afterward, those who liked those shots most were the scattered Americans in the audience. It turns out the film doesn't functions as a love letter to Paris -- it function as a love letter to the people who write love letters to Paris.
On the Metro earlier in the week, I struck up a conversation with a well-spoken 20-something. He winced a little when the topic of the Allen film came up. "It's a movie Americans may like more than people from France," he said. "We'll all go to see it, of course, but it's a touristic view of Paris."
It reminded me of something that began happening to Allen later in his phase of making movies about my hometown of New York (something that may partly explain why he picked up and began his European tour). After nearly three decades of creating films about the city such as "Manhattan" and "Hannah & Her Sisters," Allen became so associated with the town in which he told his stories that it started to create a backlash. It wasn't uncommon to meet people from outside New York who loved Woody and the city as one. But if you mentioned an Allen film among New Yorkers in, say, the early-mid 1990s, there were always those who rolled their eyes. We were, for better or worse, a lot more than intellectual types in uptown apartments debating our favorite writers and obsessing over marital problems.
Even Parisians would acknowledge that this film gets certain things right. After all, the shots of the city are beautiful, and Parisians aren't bashful about embracing their city's virtues. But those who live here also know of the ethnic divisions, the socioeconomic tensions and, of course, the political scandals. And when someone comes from outside and ignores all of that, you feel some discomfiture. (Of course Allen might say that he's hardly depicting a glowing Paris as much as he is showing his misty-eyed protagonist's view of the city, though that will strike some as a distinction sans difference.)
At the end of the film, Wilson's character gives a little speech in which he says that the present is always a little unsatisfying compared with the past. The same might be said of Woody and his approach to European cities relative to those in his native America -- it's always a little better somewhere else.
Besides, even as Allen describes a France that puts art ahead of commerce, it's a lesson his own film may play a role in disproving. Though "Midnight In Paris" landed in a strong second place on its opening weekend here, it was beaten out for the top spot by a rather different sort of movie: "Fast Five."
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams in "Midnight in Paris." Credit: Just Jared