Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris begins with a remarkably extended series of lovingly framed shots of the city of light. Initially it’s reminiscent of the opening credit sequence for Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, but the sheer length of this moving photo album clues us in that something different is going on. The images unfurl with such unceasing beauty that it almost becomes too much: sure, we get the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, the Champs-Elysées, the Moulin Rouge windmill, Notre-Dame, but also less hallowed nooks and crannies, sundappled cobblestone, the steps of Montmartre from a variety of angles. The images take us from morning to night, all in the space of an entire song, which Allen allows to play out in its entirety.
Clearly many will compare this boldly lengthy opening to that of Allen’s Manhattan; the major difference is that there is no voice-over this time. The velvety Gordon Willis images that make up the opening five minutes of the director’s 1979 masterpiece, set to the driving whimsy of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” are laid over with Allen’s halting cadences as his character Isaac tries to cough out the opening of a novel. “Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion . . . no, make that, he romanticized it all out of proportion.” There are many stops and starts and one never knows if Isaac, or Woody, finds a proper opening line. But that first variation is the one that sticks. Viewers tend to remember the coffee-table-book handsomeness of that prologue, but it’s the ambivalence of the narration that truly sets the scene (apart from a handful of other luscious black-and-white compositions, the film is largely a scathing takedown of its characters’ self-absorption and self-fulfilling crippling neuroses). Allen/Isaac is not merely expressing his love for the city he lives in—he’s seeking absolution. Now, in 2011, Allen has turned his eyes to Paris, and it’s an uncomplicated love, not requiring any sort of deflating oratory. It is not burdened by Allen’s perceived failures or secret histories. In one shot after another, it simply exists, radiant, magical.
The surprise of Midnight in Paris is that Allen goes on to acknowledge that magic as a mirage. The charm of the film is that he does so while retaining that very magic. Continue reading Michael Koresky’s review.