After London and Barcelona, Paris has become the latest city (outside of his native New York) to get the Woody Allen treatment.
Although he has visited the French capital before (in 1996’s Everyone Says I Love You, for example), his latest work, Midnight in Paris, gives it a proper going over. You can always tell when Allen really wants to get stuck into a city if he puts its name in the movie’s title — think Manhattan or, more recently, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
The film’s opening montage is a litany of the most clichéd shots of Paris imaginable — the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysées, the Jardin des Tuileries. It doesn’t bode well; similar cinematography was employed in Allen’s three London films (big red buses, various bridges, Big Ben) and they were mostly damp squibs which failed to sink roots in their settings in the way his New York oeuvre has.
But as the Paris movie clichés pile up (the opening cliché-fest runs to nearly five minutes before we get a word of dialogue or meet any of the film’s characters), you begin to realise that we’re actually in on a joke. This isn’t a movie about Paris; it’s a movie about the idea of Paris, and particularly its place in the cultural consciousness of the middle-class liberal intellectual milieu of whom, and to whom, Allen is still ultimately speaking.
The plot, more fantastical than any of Allen’s work for some time, focuses on Owen Wilson’s Gil (the Allen figure, thankfully no longer played by Allen himself), a screenwriter in love with Paris’s bohemian artistic past who finds himself transported back in time to 1920s Paris where he consorts with the likes of Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Allen, through Gil, explores what it is about Paris that cast such a spell over the consciousness of many of the artists he (Allen) admires.
There are no definitive answers, and the film’s entire conceit is Allen placing a big question mark over whether the Paris of Stein and Fitzgerald, or of the Belle Epoque (also visited) was ever real or simply woven into artistic mythology by chroniclers like Allen himself.
Early on, Rachel McAdams’ Inez tells Gil that he’s “in love with a fantasy” of Paris. That is what Allen’s films have always been in their relations to the cities in which they take place — love letters to fantasy cities that cannot really exist. When Gil visits Toulouse-Lautrec, even he and his contemporaries yearn for a previous golden age. The entire film is redolent of the opening narration from Manhattan: “Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion — er, no, make that: he — he romanticised it all out of proportion.”
A rigorous political interrogation of the film would, of course, throw up problems; like his other cities, Allen’s Paris is almost exclusively white and very middle-class. While long-dead expat residents are allowed to reclaim the city in Gil’s imagination, Paris’s contemporary black working-class inhabitants are never encountered. But Allen is filming what he knows, and the American-Jewish intellectual who has spent years documenting his love-hate fixation with his own middle-class milieu is hardly well-equipped to remake La Haine. (Although Peter Bradshaw’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion in his Guardian review of the film that someone overlays La Haine’s grim shots of working-class Parisian housing projects with Allen’s sumptuous clarinet-jazz score is one I find extremely appealing.)
Few artists in western cinema paint the idealised, romanticised, fantasy city-space — urbane, sophisticated spaces of liberated and liberating explosions of radical culture and human relations — quite like Woody Allen, and while he will never capture anywhere as magically as New York, his Paris is at least as good as his Barcelona and distinctly better than his London. It is a fantasy city that deserves tourists.