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Midnight In Paris – Woody discovers the close-up


The Night Is Young


Midnight In Paris – Woody Allen

Forty-seven movies in and Woody has finally discovered the close-up. This isn’t literally true of course but I have always been struck by a sense of detachment and distance from the characters and their emotional relationships in Allen’s films which I have attributed to his prosaic and rare use of the close-up. The close-up shot does something absolutely unique: it crosses the boundary of personal, physical space between individual human beings and enters the intensely private space within. If in the novel we are given unique access to the private thoughts of the characters; as cinema-goers we are privileged to be allowed to cross that boundary of personal space that is almost always maintained in everyday life. It is extremely rare in real life for one person to see so deeply, uninterruptedly and clearly into another’s eyes; let alone in such close physical proximity. Those few occasions on which this happens are paradigms of intimacy and I have explored them elsewhere.* The relevant example of such intimacy for Midnight in Paris in particular and Woody Allen’s films in general, is that between lovers. I think we can say for all his personal angst and morose metaphysics – Woody loves women, totally if not always well; and as most men are, is an unapologetic romantic.

As a Director Allen has, it seems to me, never been comfortable in the intimate space of the close-up; in his limited uses of it he always seems to hold back, then move on to a more comfortable distance from which to develop his story. This generates a paradox: with explicit sexual scenes, without having established a sense of ‘personal’ intimacy with the characters through the close-up and other means, Allen’s sex scenes carry an air of detachment redolent certainly of the voyeur and sometimes the clinical detachment of the pornographer. It is a supreme skill of a Director, that having taken us into an intimate space he makes us identify with that intimacy, and be wholly respectful of it. In this way he dispels the sense of voyeurism which is an inescapable element in watching narrative films. The difference between sex and intimacy is profound: with the pornographer at one end of the scale and films like Lost In Translation for example at the other.

It is a pleasure therefore to see Woody taking on the aesthetic responsibility of the close-up in Midnight in Pariswhich is mercifully free of the queasiness generated in earlier films where either he cast himself in dodgy romantic roles or tried to portray sexually explicit scenes without having established the necessary sense of intimacy that makes them comfortable to us. And he recovers our sense of affection, recently absent, because his use of the close-up, unlike the rest of the film, is a little gauche and clumsy, as if he is trying to find his way in unfamiliar territory. Rather like a nervous adolescent struggling with a recalcitrant bra-strap. This is endearing and also surprising from such a devotee of Ingmar Bergman – the absolute master of the close-up and the possibilities it offers of creating a sense of intimacy and communication of an ‘inner life’.

To my surprise therefore on this occasion I largely agree with the often repeated comment that Midnight In Parisrepresents a return to form by Woody Allen – with one major caveat. All the usual Allen strengths are there: an elegantly simple but effective plot; plenty of witty one-liners reflecting his stock in trade shtick of irony and self-mockery; and a slightly stereotypical but still satisfyingly atmospheric ‘French’ musical score. A traditional strength of Woody’s earlier films is however missing: his repertoire of familiar actors with an instinctive rapport that generated ensemble playing of high quality. I must confess to being Owen Wilson phobic but even he, with his obvious limitations, does better than I would have thought. But as a Woody-surrogate; for ‘Woody’ is in all his films, even the ones he isn’t in; Wilson just can’t cut the mustard.

Successful screenwriter Gil (Wilson) and fiancée Inez (a merely adequate Rachel McAdams) join her parents’ business trip to Paris. Wanting to break away from hack but lucrative screenwriting, Gil is struggling with his first novel. Bored rigid by the pedantry of know-it-all Paul (Michael Sheen) and Inez’s friend Carol, Gil sees the three of them off to go dancing while he wanders the night-time Paris streets in search of creative inspiration and to indulge his nostalgia for the artistically dynamic Paris of the 1920’s.

Invited to join a veteran car-full of party-goers, Gill finds himself precisely in the period of his nostalgic fantasies: among people like Picasso, Dali, Miro et al; Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, T S Eliot; plus intellectuals like Gertrude Stein. When the penny has dropped, that he is actually surrounded by all his writing heroes, Gil decides to try to get Gertrude Stein to read and appraise his novel.

Returning each night to the present and an increasingly distracted Inez, Gil manages to excuse himself for further excursions into the past by telling Inez, not entirely untruthfully, that he is working on his novel.

At Gertrude Stein’s house Gil meets up with Adriana (Marion Cotillard) ostensibly just drifting out of a relationship with Picasso. Gil and Adriana are attracted to each other and find themselves drawn further into the past to the period of Adriana’s nostalgic fantasy – La Belle Époque period from the end of the 19th century up to the Second World War.

Spending time with Inez and her parents during the days Gil also meets Gabrielle who runs a shop specialising in nostalgic objects from the past and who shares with him a love of Cole Porter.

Allen pulls all this off with a light almost European cinematic touch, far from his usual brash New York tone. Performances are generally good, especially from the always reliable Cotillard. And up to a point this all works well. What frustratingly detracts from what might have been, is the perverse casting of Wilson. He does his best at making Gil a twitchy angst-ridden, self-doubting Woody surrogate but he really isn’t up to it. Wilson’s adenoidal, slack-jawed persona makes it difficult to imagine him writing an effective laundry list let alone successful screenplays and a potentially major novel. He delivers the lines well enough but without ever convincing us that they are actually expressions of a keen and thoughtful intellect within.

Wilson’s limitations make Allen’s halting efforts at exploiting the close-up even more difficult. In a scene with Cotillard it is embarrassing to see the subtle evocation of thought and conflicting feelings she is able to suggest while Wilson just delivers the lines. And one cannot help but imagine how much better the one-liners generated with Hemingway, Picasso, Stein et al would have been with the more intellectually credible Woody himself playing the role.

That said Wilson has a good enough stab at it to just about keep the narrative this side of credible and with this suspension of disbelief Midnight In Paris is a romantic fantasy comedy that pleases and in a rather endearing, even tender way will satisfy those with the forgiving nature of the wistful romantic. The underlying clichéd message that the grass elsewhere, in this case the past, is not always greener, is as unexceptionally true as it is clichéd.

More interestingly, if Woody Allen has finally reached a point in his career where he can confidently explore the subtleties of real intimacy then he might well have his best film still in him. Perhaps one that actually addresses rather than denies, the effects of the poignancy of age and the passage of time on the Romantic personality.


*Cinema vs DVD – zettelfilmreviews (October 20th 2008)

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