Film festival opening night films are famously cursed objects, less often chosen for their artistic merits than for their ability to placate—or at least not offend—the opening-night constituency of politicians, bureaucrats and important benefactors who rarely resurface over the ensuing days, thereby allowing the festival to get on with the business of being a festival. Some other times, the film in question is simply the only one that was willing to pick up the tab for the opening night party. But if such curses exist to be broken, then Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, which tonight opens the 64th Cannes Film Festival, is the enchanted object that lifts the spell.
Shot on location, Allen's film unfolds in a magical City of Lights where anything can happen, including, for the movie's Hollywood screenwriter protagonist (Owen Wilson), a journey back in time to the storied Paris of the 1920s, where American ex-pats like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald gather at the salon of Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Cole Porter tickles the ivories at a party for Jean Cocteau, and the city abounds with beautiful muses (like one played by Marion Cotillard) who seem to have alighted from Mount Olympus itself. What follows is a comic and highly personal meditation on the idea of nostalgia—the certainty of so many writers, artists and intellectuals that life was better at the other end of the telescope—coming from a filmmaker, now himself something of an ex-pat, who has often seemed more comfortable referencing the past than coping with the present.
At 75, and clearly as capable of making a great film as an instantly forgettable one, Allen has, I think, delivered one of his masterpieces—a movie about the romantic pull of yesteryear that ends up, most unexpectedly and movingly, as an eloquent defense of today. Of the film, Kent Jones has more to say in the new issue of Film Comment, including an extended conversation with the director. Before leaving for Cannes, I also sat down with Allen in his New York screening room for an L.A. Weekly profile that can be found here.