Thursday, June 16, 2011

Midnight in Paris, and its antecedents

When Woody Allen's musical comedy, Everyone Says I Love You, was released in 1996, Roger Ebert made a bold proclamation. As he watched the penultimate scene, he wrote, it occurred to him that the film was "the best... Woody Allen has ever made. Not the most profound, or the most daring, or the most successful in every one of its details -- but simply the best, because he finds the right note for every scene, and dances on a tightrope between comedy and romance, between truth and denial, between what we hope and what we know."

I no longer remember if I read Ebert's review (which is among his most eloquently written) before or after I saw Everyone Says I Love You, but once I did, I found myself in complete agreement with him. Nearly 15 years have passed since the film debuted, and while I've come to value Allen's dramas (such as Interiors and Another Woman) every bit as much as his comedies, I haven't changed my mind about the greatness of the life-affirming Everyone Says.

In many ways, Everyone Says anticipated Allen's recent European films since it was set not only in New York, but also Venice and Paris. The film's final act takes place in the City of Light over the holiday season. As the narrator, D.J., explains, her family doesn't do the normal things families do at that time of the year, like sing carols, but instead, "what we do is head for Paris, to spend Christmas at the Ritz."

Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris, feels like a feature-length version of the Paris sequence of Everyone Says. Both films are full of Allen's love for the city, its history, its culture, and, in fact, its parties (Everyone Says concludes with a party in honor of the Marx Brothers). There are visual echoes, too. The beginning of Midnight in Paris has been compared to the beginning of Manhattan, but I think it echoes Everyone Says more noticeably. The new film opens with a series of shots depicting Paris through the course of a single day, going from morning to afternoon to twilight to evening; it reminds me of the way Allen introduced each new season in Everyone Says with a brief series of shots of New York locales during spring or summer or fall or winter. Both shot sequences are about the passage of time, whether several months in Everyone Says or several hours in Midnight in Paris.

I was also reminded of Oedipus Wrecks, Allen's wonderful contribution to the anthology film New York Stories. In that short film, the Allen character's deceased mother appears as a ghost in the sky. But the inspiration behind this boldly comic idea came from an unlikely brainstorm. Allen has said, "Once, long before I did New York Stories, I was sitting in my apartment looking up at the sky and I was listening to a jazz record [soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet]... and I thought to myself, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could see that musician in the sky playing music and, you know, only I could hear this musician playing it for the whole city?'"

Obviously, Allen took the idea in a different direction in Oedipus Wrecks, but the sentiment remained. The same wishful thinking seems to have been the catalyst for Midnight in Paris. The aspiring novelist played by Owen Wilson romanticizes Paris for its writers and artists, and then one night, out of the blue, a Peugeot pulls up and takes him to a party attended by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Cole Porter, among others. The longing for contact with great artists of the past is very touching in both Allen's daydream about Sidney Bechet and the story of Midnight in Paris.

The film is a triumph on all levels. After my frustration with the fragmentary, over-edited quality of The Tree of Life, it was a pleasure to see a film so beautifully and carefully crafted, with its leisurely long takes and perfect timing. (Watch how long Allen stays on close-ups of Marion Cotillard in a few scenes.) The ensemble cast is Allen's best in several years, though my favorite cameo is undoubtedly that of Adrien Brody (reunited with Wilson, his co-star from The Darjeeling Limited), who plays, with great intensity, Salvador Dali.