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The first time Woody Allen saw Paris, the year was 1964 and his first original screenplay, What's New Pussycat?, was being turned into a movie starring Peter Sellers and Peter O'Toole. "Like everybody else, I grew up getting my impressions of Paris from American movies," he tells me one recent morning, as he sinks into a green roller chair in the velvet-draped screening room of his New York office. "So before I ever went to Paris, I was in love with the city, because Hollywood was in love with the city, and whenever you saw Paris it was the city of romance, music, wine, beautiful hotels, Gigi. Then I went there, and the city lived up to its hype."
Allen lived in the city for eight months, playing a supporting role in Pussycat and remaining on call for new jokes and rewrites. "On the one hand, I was having a wonderful time, because I was living in this magical city all expenses paid," he remembers. "On the other hand, I hated what was going on with my movie, because I felt they were ruining it."
As the shoot drew to a close, two Americans from the wardrobe department, whom Allen had befriended, announced they would be making Paris their new home. "And I said, 'I love it too,' but I was afraid to stay. I thought, 'Gee, I'd love to stay, but ... I just don't have the courage to uproot my life and move here.' Now, that is a decision that I've regretted many times."
Allen's love for the city is obvious from the first frames of his 41st feature, Midnight in Paris, which opens with a three-minute, dialogue-free montage of Paris street scenes both iconic and ordinary, day slowly giving way to night as the expat saxophonist Sidney Bechet's "Si tu vois ma mère" plays on the soundtrack. "No work of art can compare to a city," notes the film's protagonist, a successful American screenwriter (wonderfully played by Owen Wilson) who, like Allen, lived in Paris as a younger man and now finds himself there once more, on vacation with his high-strung fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her parents, while trying his hand at his first novel.
When French producers first approached Allen (who has directed five of his last six pictures abroad) about making a film in the City of Light, he happily agreed. "But I had no idea for Paris at all — none," he says. "So I asked myself: What do you think of when you think of Paris? Well, romance is what you think of — at least, it's what I think of." Then Allen hit upon the film's title but still had no story to go with it. "And I'm thinking to myself for months, well, what happens at midnight in Paris? And then one day it came to me that somebody visiting Paris is walking around at night, and it's midnight, and suddenly a car pulls up and he gets in and it takes him on a real adventure."
That adventure, which (spoiler alert!) has been carefully concealed from the Midnight in Paris trailer, is a journey through time, in which Wilson's character finds himself spirited away to the Lost Generation Paris of the 1920s, rubbing elbows with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, soliciting writerly advice from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and falling in love with the muse (Marion Cotillard) of Picasso and Modigliani. It's a premise that might have seemed incredibly corny but in Allen's deft hands becomes something magical, as sublimely enchanting as any Allen film since 1985's The Purple Rose of Cairo, where a movie hero steps down from the screen and into the life of a Depression-era New Jersey waitress.
"A certain amount of people in the world become obsessed with magic, and as a boy I was one of them," Allen says of his recurring interest in fantasy and the supernatural, which also crops up to varying degrees in films like A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Alice and the "Oedipus Wrecks" segment of New York Stories. "I always feel that only a magical solution can save us. The human predicament is so tragic and so awful that, short of an act of magic, we're doomed."
"Nostalgia is denial," says the pompous intellectual hilariously played by Michael Sheen in Midnight in Paris, before going on to define a condition he terms "Golden Age thinking" as "a flaw in the romantic imagination of people who find it difficult to cope with the present." One such person is Wilson's Gil Pender, whose novel-in-progress takes place in a "nostalgia shop" and who longs to live in a time other than his own — at least until he discovers that everyone in the past seems consumed by a similar desire, yearning for the Belle Époque or even the Renaissance.
There are those, surely, who would peg Allen as something of a nostalgia merchant himself, from the number of films he has set in a rose-colored yesteryear to the jazz standards that routinely comprise the soundtracks of even his contemporary tales. Yet if Midnight in Paris is undeniably one of Allen's most personal films, it is also one as skeptical of "Golden Age thinking" as it is susceptible to it.
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