Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen's Cannes Opening Night

Does the Manhattan auteur's homage to the City of Light hold a candle to his classics? Richard Porton on the Cannes premiere of Midnight in Paris.

Plus, photos of Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, and more stars on the red carpet.

Film festivals, like religious holidays and ceremonial banquets, rely on various soothing rituals to ensure their survival. At Cannes, the most stubbornly traditional of all film festivals, seasoned filmgoers can always expect the Competition jury to reiterate a few innocuous platitudes. The opening of the 2011 edition—the 64th— recycled old bromides in the usual crowd-pleasing manner. Jury President Robert De Niro spoke of how honored and lucky he was to bask in the sun for nearly two weeks with nothing to do but mull over the state of world cinema. Jury member Uma Thurman hailed the “diversity” represented by the festival’s selection process, while her colleague Jude Law lost little time affirming his status as a lifelong film buff.

Another hoary Cannes tradition involves choosing an opening-night film that will prove sufficiently inoffensive to the throngs in attendance, which range from hardcore film fanatics to partygoers who spend most of their time on yachts. This year’s opening-night film, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, was less laborious to sit through than last year’s choice, Ridley Scott’s inert Robin Hood. But Allen’s latest effort drove home the realization that the bulk of his mainly uninspired recent films seem more like obligations to churn out an annual feature to stoke nostalgia for Annie Hall and Manhattan than endeavors to break substantial new creative ground.

Nostalgia is, appropriately enough, Midnight in Paris’ central preoccupation. Gil (Owen Wilson), a hack Hollywood screenwriter and an aspiring novelist, arrives in Paris for a vacation with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams, Wilson’s Wedding Crashers costar) and her cranky right-wing parents. Given that Allen’s European films are predictably smitten with touristic clichés—The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote that the British-made Match Point was marred by a species of “posh English that Allen seems to have learned from a Berlitz handbook,” the most famous of Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudi’s iconic buildings appear like clockwork in Vicky Cristina Barcelona—there’s little surprise that Midnight in Paris opens with picture-postcard shots of the usual Paris landmarks, including the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre, Sacré Coeur, etc. It’s equally unsurprising that Gil, a West Coast surrogate for the frustrated intellectual played by Allen himself in his early films, is obsessed with the Lost Generation writers of the 1920s and dutifully invokes Ernest Hemingway’s observation that Paris in the early part of the 20th century was a “moveable feast.”

Gallery: Cannes 2011 Red Carpet

To be fair, Allen has some ingenious fun parodying literary clichés by whisking his hero into this “golden age,” where he encounters many of his literary and artistic idols. In a maneuver that nicely illuminates Gil’s impoverished imagination, Hemingway (Corey Stoll), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill), as well as surrealists Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody) and Luis Buñuel, are all one-dimensional versions of geniuses—e.g. Hemingway suggests boxing to one and all as an antidote to insufficient manliness, Dalí is exasperatingly zany, Gertrude Stein (a nice turn by Kathy Bates) is both imperious and an incessant editor of other writers’ manuscripts, while Zelda alternates between impish exuberance and botched suicide attempts. A clever gag will endear the film to many movie aficionados; Gil casually gives Buñuel the idea for one of his most famous films, The Exterminating Angel. The taciturn surrealist proves incongruously skeptical.

The second film screened proved that an eager young newcomer to film could produce a film as shopworn as septuagenarian Allen’s largely anemic romantic comedy.

Unfortunately, whatever charm Midnight in Paris possesses in its midsection dissipates as the film moves into tried and true Woody Allen terrain toward its conclusion. Cured of his predilection for time travel, Gil takes leave of his duplicitous fiancée (fresh from a dalliance with a gaseous academic, played amusingly by Michael Sheen) and bids a sad farewell to Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a sketchily drawn muse. For anyone who has followed Allen’s career, there’s a comforting predictability when he ends up with Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), a young French woman whose wide-eyed innocence mirrors the allure of countless nubile heroines from the writer-director’s career. (And for those who care, Carla Bruni, a.k.a. Mrs. Nicolas Sarkozy, is perfectly adequate, if nothing more, in the small role of a tour guide at the Rodin Museum.)

Of course, the second film screened during Cannes’ opening-day salvo—Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s debut feature Sleeping Beauty—proved that an eager young newcomer to film could produce a film as shopworn as septuagenarian Allen’s largely anemic romantic comedy. Highly touted by fellow Aussie director Jane Campion, who hails this highly stylized parable as “sensuous, intriguing, complex and unafraid,” Leigh’s film stirred up a considerable amount of anticipation in the press and on the Internet before the festival began. Nevertheless, while the novice director deserves credit for attempting to plunge into filmmaking with an unorthodox project, her movie is plagued by a jumble of half-baked ideas that never coalesce into what might have been a pithy and poetic example of erotic cinema.

The focus is on the sexual adventures of Lucy (Emily Browning, whose highly assured performance shows off aspects of her talent that remained submerged in Zack Snyder’s silly Sucker Punch), a college student with a marked inability to pay the rent on time. To both earn extra income and satisfy her craving for sexual danger, the intrepid Lucy takes a job as a waitress-cum-prostitute. Her main task in a Sydney-based brothel, managed by a firm but empathetic madam (Rachael Blake), is to sleep in the nude while elderly men use her as fodder for rather stock prurient fantasies.

Shot in a languorous style that features meditative long takes, Leigh tries valiantly to shed her literary propensities and forge a distinctive visual style. For this reason, it’s regrettable that her film does little but reassemble stale literary and intellectual motifs. No doubt intended as audacious magical realism, the airless narrative is littered with influences: Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata’s The House of the Sleeping Beauties, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, with even a pinch of Harold Pinter’s laconic dialogue and some residual elements of The Story of O thrown in for good measure. At the end of the day, Sleeping Beauty is a muddled project enhanced by a brilliant performance.

Several forthcoming Cannes films—Bertrand Bonello’s L’Apollonide and Sion Sono’s Guilty of Romance in the Directors’ Fortnight—are also preoccupied with sex work. (A New York-based programmer I chatted with waggishly dubbed 2011 “the year of the hooker” at Cannes.) It remains to be seen if Bonello and Sono will come up with more innovative erotic forays.

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Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste magazine in New York and has written on film for Cinema Scope, In These Times, and Moving Image Source. His anthology, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press), was published in 2009.