I found Paris to be a grimy, dirty, overpriced and overrated hovel of a city, crawling with street urchins and riff-raff flogging pebbles and other assorted tat. There are esteemed features, but as someone with negligible interest in food, coffee, or fashion, I found it hard to be enamoured with the place. It’s the antithesis of the magical province propagated by such recent luminous movies as Amélie (2001) and Moulin Rouge! (2001). Granted, Montmartre was splendid, and the Eiffel Tower a must-see cultural landmark, but these aside I reviled the setting; I simply didn’t see a reason for it to exist. It’s ugly, noisy, and boring.
Midnight in Paris (2011), in which Owen Wilson’s successful but unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter winds up galavanting Zelig-style around the 1920s Paris party scene with the most famous faces of the age, is one of the most … pleasing movies of the past decade. As escapist as Allen has got in recent years, it’s no accident that his late-career resurgance has coincided with him having effectively retired the Allen persona in front of camera.
Rather than gloss over the city’s defects or tackle them, Allen appears to have found a way to plausibly romanticise the city through its time-travel McGuffin – a vintage Peugeot Type 176 this picture’s DeLorean. Why bother essaying social and economic upheaval when you can have your protagonist shoot the shit with Cole Porter, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein?
Allen nails the centrifugal appeal of Paris in its most delectable incarnation – that carefree carnival of the Golden Twenties. Our everyman is vaulted seemingly by magic into a smoky conurbation of illustrious writers, poets, and artists, and able to hold his own with these literati. A roaring decade of promise between the wars, the ’20s stand as the most seductive and beguiling of the 20th century, and Paris (with Berlin) its gleeful carousel. ‘Les Années folles’, indeed.
It’s not so much the topography of the city that captivates the audience, but the freewheeling possibilities of Wilson’s night-time escapades. That was the essence of the ’20s – when ‘isms’ were scrawled on napkins and a trip to a café could be a life-changing experience.
The film is Paris as an ideal, less so reality. It’s how I’d like to regard the City of Lights, this aided by never returning there. It’s easier to empathise with the past than accept the present. The dream has become reality.