|Owen Wilson channels Woody Allen in Allen's most recent film.|
I got interested in Ernest Hemingway in a big way back in 2010, after reading A Moveable Feast in Cuba. The book - published posthumously in 1964 - is Hemingway’s episodic memoir of his life in Paris in the early 1920s – focused especially on his relationships with fellow-American writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. He acknowledges the debt he owes to both writers, as friends and critics, but in his final - very difficult - years, when he was writing this memoir (late '50s), his memories are tainted by a considerable amount of bitterness and envy. It’s a fascinating read.
When I heard Woody Allen was making a romantic comedy/fantasy about time-travel back to Paris in the 1920s - Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, I knew it was a film for me. Woody Allen’s interest in Ernest Hemingway and the literary scene of 1920s Paris goes much further back than mine! There was a comedy sketch called “The Lost Generation” he used to do back in the mid-60s, when he worked as a stand-up comedian. You can find it on his album Standup Comic. The phrase “lost generation” comes from Gertrude Stein; she applied it to the young artists and writers living in Paris in that manic decade - "the roaring twenties" - which followed World War I. “You are all a lost generation,” Hemingway remembered her saying, and he used it as an epigram at the beginning of his first novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), which is set in that milieu.
“I was in Europe many years ago with Ernest Hemingway,” Allen says in the sketch. “Hemingway had just written his first novel, and Gertrude Stein and I read it, and we said that is was a good novel, but not a great one, and that it needed some work, but it could be a fine book. And we laughed over it. Hemingway punched me in the mouth.” Right, Hemingway the boxer.
|Ernest Hemingway in Paris in 1924|
Hemingway went to Paris to become a writer - and he succeeded. Our protagonist in Woody Allen's recent film, Midnight in Paris, is also an aspiring writer enamoured with the city. Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson - he does an uncanny job channelling Woody Allen) has come to Paris with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams) - they are tagging along with Inez's parents. Her father is on a business trip. Gil is a successful Hollywood scriptwriter, but he has aspirations of becoming a serious novelist - he is 400 pages into a novel about a man who owns a nostalgia shop. Inez thinks it's a romantic delusion and wants him to get back to the writing that has brought him some real success. She's a shallow materialist. He dreams of moving to Paris and re-living the 1920s experiences of his heroes Hemingway and Fitzgerald; she wants to move to Malibu.
The themes of his infatuation with Paris and their essential incompatibility are set up economically in the very first lines of the film:
Gil: "This is unbelievable! Look at this! There's no city like this in the world. There never was."
Inez: "You act like you've never been here before."
Gil: "I don't get here often enough, that's the problem. Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain? Imagine this town in the '20s. Paris in the '20s, in the rain. The artists and writers."
Inez: "Why does every city have to be in the rain? What's wonderful about getting wet?"
|Gil carousing with Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter|
"Yes, it was a good book, because it was an honest book. And that's what war does to men. And there's nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud, unless you die gracefully, and then it's not only noble, but brave."
I laughed out loud when I heard this. We're back in Woody's 1960s stand-up sketch - an over-the-top lampoon of a writer he obviously knows well and loves. My friend, Jerrod – who, like me, is a huge Hemingway fan - disliked the portrait of the great man in this film. He thought it was full of cliche and exaggeration. Me? I thought it was hilarious. If you know Hemingway’s work, you’ll have fun picking up a lot of Woody's sly touches. In this first meeting between Gil and Hemingway, for example, our protagonist quotes Hemingway back at him. “You like Mark Twain?” says Ernest of Gil, clearly sizing up his status as a writer:
“I’m actually a huge Mark Twain fan,” he replies; “and think you can even make the case that all modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn”.
Amusing, if you’re aware, as Gil is, of course, that this was Hemingway’s own opinion, expressed in print later in his book Green Hills of Africa (1935): “There has been nothing as good since.”
Corey Stoll as Hemingway - intense and earnest
In an interview, Corey Stoll said this about the way he approached playing Hemingway:
"I think what Woody Allen wanted was not for me to be Hemingway the person. He told me not to listen to recordings of him, or even read biographies. He really wanted me to be the Hemingway that you get when you read him. You know, he wanted me to be the writerly voice of Hemingway. And so I just stuck to his words".
On the next night of Gil Pender’s midnight trips back to the 1920s, he brings the manuscript of his novel; Hemingway had promised to show it to his friend and critic Gertrude Stein. We meet Stein and her long-time partner Alice B. Toklas in their apartment on Rue de Fleurus. Also present is Pablo Picasso and Adriana, played by the lovely Marion Cotillard - whom you may have seen previously in her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose. Adriana is a “fictional” figure. She is not an historical figure being parodied or imitated. In the plot she plays the serial muse and lover for a string of famous artists – she has had affairs with Modigliani and Braque, among others, before meeting up with Picasso. Hemingway has his eyes on her, too. Well, she is alluring. But she falls for Gil, the sensitive, neurotic type - not Hem, the virile braggart.
In future nighttime visits to 1920s Paris, Gil Pinder meets Louis Bunuel, Man Ray, T.S. Eliot, and Salvador Dali. Allen has fun riffing on things known to Gil and us informed film-goers. Gil makes a pitch to film-maker Bunuel, for example, about the subject for a film that wouldn’t be made until forty years later (The Exterminating Angel)!
|Top-to-Bottom and Left-to-Right: Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Toulouse-Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), the Fitzgeralds (Alison Pill & Tom Hiddleston), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo)|
Eventually, though, the focus shifts from these meetings with famous figures from the visual and literary arts to the growing romance between Gil and Adriana. Concern for the cleverness of the fantasy fades as we follow Gil’s deepening attachment to her. And by the end of the film, we realise that it’s lessons about life and love that matter, not the chance to meet and hang out with one’s idols from the past. Gil goes back in time to discover how to live in the present.
Graham Greene used to divide his books into two types: novels and entertainments. They were all novels, of course, but he considered some of them done more for fun and amusement (Our Man in Havana, for example), than as serious, literary works (The Heart of the Matter). Allen is like that, too. He has more serious work (Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours); and then there are the entertainments. This is one of these clever entertainments.
Does it succeed, then? Wonderfully so. First, it looks great. It’s shot in warm colours (yellows, oranges and reds), with the look of Kodachrome slides. The opening sequence is lovely; just like his film Manhattan (1979), which begins with a long portrait of New York City in three movements - day, night, and fireworks - accompanied by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Midnight in Paris begins with a similar sequence of familiar vistas of central Paris in three movements - day, daytime-rain, and rain at night - accompanied by the wonderfully atmospheric “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” by Sidney Bechet (one of the great early jazz musicians from New Orleans, who moved to Paris in the mid-1920s). The mood is set appropriately for sentiment and nostalgia.
Allen, as always has written and directed the film. The script is brilliant – mixing romance, comedy, and fantasy time-travel. This is the sort of stuff Allen can write in his sleep. It’s just so light and amusing and clever. Is anyone as good as he with romantic comedy? – think Annie Hall. He knows how to dramatize comically the tensions and neuroses between couples. And here he sets up a clever contrast between Gil-in-the-present and Inez, and between Gil-in-the-past and Adriana. And, ultimately, it’s the romantic relationship between Gil and Adriana that matters most, not the authorial friendship between him and Hemingway.
|Marion Cotillard as Adriana and Owen Wilson as Gil Pender|
Midnight in Paris has been Woody Allen’s most successful film in many years. And it’s easy to see why: shot in Paris; focused on a fascinating period of twentieth-century arts and culture; with a clever plot; and witty dialogue; and good performances. This is Woody at the top of his game. If you like his breezy, intelligent, funny style, this is one film you should not miss.
*footnote: Hemingway's complete Toronto Star Dispatches from 1920-1924 have been published in a volume called Dateline: Toronto (1985)