The graphic concept for this year’s Cannes Film Festival incorporates typography that makes the numbers 6 + 4 look like something out of the Seventies. The retro chic is reinforced by the image on the festival’s official poster, a striking 1973 black-and-white photograph of Faye Dunaway in full Twiggy eye makeup. Under the circumstances, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris fits right in as the opening-night selection: Like Allen’s London in Match Point, his Barcelona in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and, for that matter, his Manhattan in any of his New York movies, the filmmaker’s Paris is a romantic (and romanticized) attitude in his head rather than an identifiable way of living in an actual city. (My colleague Dave Karger weighs the movie’s award cred here.)
That attitudinal insularity, equal parts neurosis and amusing snobbery, has always been both the charm (when it works) and limitation (when it doesn’t) of Allen’s movie scripts: Wherever he is, either on the streets of NYC or in the Great Cities of Europe, he brings himself along, barely noticing any character or any scenario outside his established comfort zone. And so it is with Midnight in Paris — with a pleasant twist: For the first time in a long time, a self-aware Allen plays with his own weakness for nostalgia. Here, after all, is the story of Gil (Owen Wilson, doing The Woody Thing), an American screenwriter in Paris with his hard-edged fiancée (Rachel McAdams, in the unfair role of a highbred, insensitive status-seeker). Gil is a man so besotted with the romance of artsy Paris from vanished days that he slips backwards in time at the stroke of midnight. With the gong from a clock tower, he’s swept away to a world of the still-living F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali (among others). He’s enthralled by a beautiful serial muse/mistress (Marion Cotillard). He gets writing advice from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). He lives, at least each midnight, la vie en rose.
The cast is, in the grand Allen tradition, big, starry, and left to their own theatrical devices with varying degrees of success. (Adrien Brody has a grand time as Dali; Carla Bruni, also known as the wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, is more tentative as a modern-day tour guide.) The cinematography by Darius Khondji is, in the confounding Allen tradition, flat and uninspired — quite a feat when shooting such photogenic material. (My theory: Allen isn’t a visual guy and never much cares how his films look and flow so long as he has cast attractive people.) The music? Well, it’s great, of course: Allen is definitely an aural guy.
Tonight, Woody Allen and his stars will walk up the legendary red-carpeted steps of Cannes’ Palais and present his Paris on French soil. I’m guessing the French will say, “Charming! But what city is that? Wish I lived there.”