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Oct 22/11

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Midnight In Paris (Movie); Gainsbourg (Movie)

Midnight In Paris (Movie) written and directed by Woody Allen; starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy, Michael Sheen, Nina Arianda, Yves Heck, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston, Carla Bruni, Sonia Rolland, Thrse Bourou-Rubinsztein, Kathy Bates, Marcial Di Fonzo Bo, Adrien Brody

Sometimes you’re not impressed by what you’re hearing about a movie, so you pass on it. But the damn thing keeps hanging around. Anything with such staying power must have something going for it, right? In this case, there’s an additional consideration: it’s a long time since you’ve seen anything by Woody Allen. He used to be one of your favourite movie makers. So why not give this one a try?

If you pay any attention at all to what’s happening movie-wise, you probably know the gist of this one. Gil (Owen Wilson), a Hollywood hack, finds himself in Paris with his fiance and her rich parents. He’s always wanted to be a "real" writer and he fantasizes about the great days when you could bump into the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald on the banks of the Seine. Up to this point, the movie nearly implodes under a barrage of script-writing. Never two lines of dialogue without some sort of conflict brewing: between Gil and his fiance; between him and her parents; between him and the fiance’s pedantic ex-boyfriend. It’s as if Mr. Allen’s been churning out scripts for so long that he doesn’t think people can communicate in any way except dialectically. August Strindberg lite you might say.

Eventually, though, something unprecedented happens to Gil. (This is one of the cases where it’s impossible to say anything pertinent about a movie without revealing a bit more plot than usual.) One night as the clock strikes midnight, he gets picked up in a mysterious cab and taken to a party where Cole Porter’s tickling the ivories and the glamorous 1920s gang’s all there. Best of all, Gil discovers that he can make the same magic happen on subsequent midnights.

Well...we all have dreams about hob-nobbing with the elite – whether they be the royal family, movie stars, athletes or Mother Theresa. When we wake up in the morning, we long to be able to make the dream happen again. Only a severe curmudgeon, then, would fail to wish Gil well as he revels in his big adventure. But the content of his dream doesn’t much interest me. Granted, all that wistful nostalgia has a romantic glow but, to my mind, it’s not anywhere near as alluring as the lavish shots of contemporary Paris.

And meeting with all those A-list writers, artists and filmmakers from the 1920s just doesn’t do it for me. Especially when we get such phony versions of them. Hemingway spews a lot of bravado that seems like a parody of the declarative sentences of his writing, which, I suppose, is meant as a kind of joke, except that the actor (Corey Stoll) isn’t macho enough to make it convincing. Kathy Bates doesn’t seem so much like the ballsy Gertrude Stein as a frumpy earth-mother type from the 1970s. As for Gil’s incongruous presence on the scene, I kept wondering why all these people with their crimped, pomaded hair and their satiny cheeks didn’t call the men in white coats to cart off this shaggy interloper with his tousled head and his permanent stubble.

Things do get a little more interesting when, returning to the 21st century during the day, Gil reads about himself in the published memoirs of one of Picasso’s girlfriends. Then, there’s a bit of farce when the father of Gil’s fiance hires a detective to find out where Gil’s going every night. A few good chuckles surface, la Woody Allen of old, as when Gil says he’ll write a letter to the Paris Chamber of Commerce about the cool things that are happening. And when, pressed to explain what he and fiance have in common, he comes up with the declaration that they both really like pita bread. As the starry-eyed groupie who delivers these lines, Owen Wilson is likeable and believable, perhaps more so than in his goofball roles. Given the hoard of other big-name actors drawn to the project, they all apparently love working with Woody Allen. But why didn’t he stop some of them from flapping their hands so much? He does manage to wrap things up with a folksy truism about living in the here and now. But it all amounts to little more than a faint echo of the Woody Allen of his best movies.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a "rating") Worth a rental if you’re desperate.

 

Gainsbourg (Movie) written and directed by Joann Sfar; starring Eric Elmosino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones, Anna Mouglalis, Kacey Mottet Klein, Razvan Vasilescu, Dinara Drukarova

Perhaps you knew something about this guy before the movie came along. I didn’t. Apparently Serge Gainsbourg was, to France, something like a combination of Bob Dylan, Elvis and Leonard Cohen. But you won’t learn much about the details of his life from this movie. Not by any means a typical showbiz bio, it’s more like a tribute to the star, an artsy rumination on his life. Only somebody who already knows all about him can get much satisfaction from this movie.

For the rest of us, it’s a matter of picking at fragments and making what sense of them we can. One thing that’s obvious is that Monsieur Gainsbourg was quite the precocious lad. As a budding artist around the age of ten, he was propositioning luscious models to pose nude for him. In his adulthood, he gave up drawing women in favour of screwing them. Which he had lots of opportunity for. They threw themselves at him. It’s hard to see why, given that this actor (Eric Elmosino), with his pendulous lips, hook nose and scrawny body, is said to look a lot like Monsieur Gainsbourg. Wives and girlfriends – including Brigitte Bardot – come and go. Maybe it’s some mysterious French thing. There are glimpses of kids that he has sired but not much light is shed on family matters.

Except for his parents, who appear now and then as a sort of comic chorus (Razvan Vasilescu and Dinara Drukarova). They inhabit one of those fusty, furniture-stuffed Paris apartments, the look of which makes you think Madame Maigret and the Inspector live just down the hall. In spite of dad’s tyrannical supervision of piano practice, Monsieur Gainsbourg develops a knack for playing in bars. We see him in smokey joints where drag queens totter about draped over each other. Along the way, he starts penning lyrics to his own songs. Seems they were scandalously grotty. Somehow or other, it appears, he becomes a huge star but how, I don’t quite know. Everything seems to pass in an erotic swirl of cigarette smoke, booze and tinkling piano.

But a few scenes have a special quality. When he’s a kid, the young artiste encounters a fat, lurid chanteuse in a caf and he offers to sing one of her naughty songs for her. She joins in, a couple of instrumentalists materialize out of nowhere and an enchanting thing happens. Another scene that has an oddly engaging ambiance takes place in a recording studio in Jamaica where Monsieur Gainsbourg’s doing a reggae version of La Marseillaise, a recording with turned out to be very controversial. Near the end of the movie, when Monsieur Gainsbourg’s on his last legs, he’s standing on a stage before an audience and his self as a child is peering out at him from the wings. It’s a poignant moment that says a lot about how the child in the self looks on the dissipated man.

There’s another self that dogs Monsieur Gainsbourg throughout the movie: a cartoonish caricature with a gigantic nose, enormous ears and long, creepy fingers. What this grotesquerie is supposed to represent remains obscure until near the end of the movie when it’s suggested that this may be an externalization of Monsieur Gainsbourg’s own self-loathing as a Jew. That’s not a theme that appears to have carried through the movie; it’s not as if Monsieur Gainsbourg is subjected to any conspicuous anti-Jewish discrimination. However, it is possible, as dramatized in some early scenes showing the Nazi influence on Paris, that conflicted feelings about Jewishness planted in him in his childhood may have plagued him throughout the rest of his life even if there didn’t seem to be any further cause for them.

For the most part, though, we seldom learn much about what Monsieur Gainsbourg is thinking or feeling. As a result, it’s hard to care very much about what happens to him. We seem to be watching a fable about the self-destruction of a big star. It’s happening in a galaxy so remote from our own that the light is cold by the time it reaches us and can't strike any sparks in our North American hearts.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a "rating"): Of interest only if you’re a big fan of Monsieur Gainsbourg or of arty movies or of smoking.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com