They love Woody Allen in France. And in Midnight in Paris, which just opened the Cannes Film Festival, the Woodman returns the favor. Not since 1979's Manhattan, in which he rhapsodized over the New York of his black-and-white dreams, has Allen used a camera to make such urgent, passionate love to a city.
Midnight in Paris opens with a prologue, shot with a poet's eye by the great Darius Khondji, that shows off the City of Light from dawn to darkness in images of shimmering loveliness. Pity the actors who have to compete with such an object of desire. Owen Wilson stars as Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter on a return visit to Paris, this time with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams). "This is where Monet lived and painted," Gil enthuses. Inez isn't into water lilies or Gil's dreams of writing the great American novel like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. She'd rather party with Paul (Michael Sheen), a fake intellectual who thinks he can one-up a Rodin museum tour guide (a playful cameo from France's First Lady, Carla Bruni).
Allen has fired at these targets before. What's fresh about Midnight in Paris is the way he identifies with Gil's idealization of the past, of the Paris that represented art and life at their fullest. Wilson is pitch-perfect at locating the right blend of humor and gravity that the role demands. Gil finds a kindred spirit and a muse in fashion designer Adriana (a superb Marion Cotillard). What's at risk is a lifeline back to the present. As a filmmaker, Allen has grappled with the temptations of repeating himself instead of forging a fresh path. You can feel that conflict here, and watching him work it out is exhilarating.
Midnight in Paris is infused with seductive secrets no review should spoil. But for all the film's bracing humor and ravishing romance, there are also haunting shadows. That alone makes it a keeper.