The Lovers: Midnight in Paris
Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), visiting Paris for unknown length of time, is so taken by the city that he considers moving in, be a perpetual tourist and write his novel. His fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) thinks that he should go back to Southern California and stay on as the moderately successful screenwriter that he is. His romanticized view of Paris gets intermittently interrupted by his fiancée’s parents, her older friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and the latter’s yes-woman of a fiancée. After a wine tasting party, Gil takes a rain check when Inez and Paul want to go out dancing. He wants to ingest the city and gets lost. While sitting on some steps, the bells ring midnight, a vintage car stops in front of him and inside are people dressed up for a 1920’s themes costume party. They wave him in, he follows, and they take a ride from one charming, drunken party to another in for real 1920’s Paris.
In his review of Woody Allen‘s new film Midnight in Paris for The New York Times, A.O. Scott says ‘critics…complain when he repeats himself and also when he experiments.’ The same can be said in his version of 1920’s France, the historical characters from that bygone era depicted like Coles Notes. Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, because who else?) saying something quotable and eloquent! Ernest Hemingway saying something equally quotable eloquent on an awesome musky drunken haze! Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill) and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) saying something coarse and/or surreal that no one rightfully bothered to write down! It’s a damned if he does or doesn’t scenario. The latter might have made history buffs and literati take their own nails out. But choosing the former makes history seem like pushing a button to reassure Gil, as he tells Inez, that the people in the past are exactly what he thought they would be, and that he might not learn anything new despite going into this different world.
Thankfully, history gets a different narrative through Ariana (Marion Cotilliard), a fashion designer originally from a smaller French city. Conventionally, no one in her time would write about her, the thankless muse and objectified trophy to many artists. She’s smitten by Gil’s writing and befriends him. Instead of the gilded tourist-y, antique shop present day France that Gil experiences in daylight, shot marvellously by Darius Khondji, his midnight strolls in 1920’s Paris with Ariana are gray, mahogany and smoke. She leads him to avenues with a whopping four prostitutes in one block. Four! She tells him about her relatively hard life and her encounters with sleazy people of that time.
Through Cotilliard’s commendable performance, Ariana talks about being these artists’ and writers’ lovers or working under revered couturiers as a measly job or a mere stop to a drifter’s journey instead of an honour that Gil thinks it is. Kindred spirits with differences attract, and it’s very convincing that instead of hanging out and being a sponge to ideas from these great writers, he is more fascinated with ‘some girl.’ Ariana is just one of the film’s female characters who are counter-subversive to Gil’s subversion, being able to see the cracks within his nostalgia. Gertrude Stein criticizes a painting that would end up in a gallery that Gil revisits in the present day. Inez’ mother questions his lack of taste in furniture.
Woody Allen’s previous takes on the past are more magical, an element greatly missed in this film. Sure, there’s that bit of dust touching the vintage car as they’re going to Cole Porter’s party, but instead of fully embracing the world where Gil finds himself, we instead see his eyes get bigger, the characters introducing themselves with names of people who have been dead for years. But at least he replaces magic with self-awareness.
- Movie Review – Midnight in Paris (** out of 5) (chicagonow.com)
The Affair of the Necklace
In which I will use my armchair knowledge of film criticism and French history to write about The Affair of the Necklace.
I’m starting to blame Hollywood less for Americanizing any foreign narrative. If someone’s playing ‘let’s pretend’ in their backyard, they might as well play with the neighborhood kids. Hilary Swank, Adrien Brody, Brian Cox and Christopher freaking Walken are the last people the last people you’ll think about when you say ‘French costume drama,’ since they don’t make a lot of movies under that genre. But there it is, gnawing at the corner of their luck-filled and strangely eclectic CVs. She, playing protagonist Jeanne de la Motte de Valois, leads a cast of two Brits, an Australian and others who are mostly and blatantly too American for their roles, no matter how much they push their affectations to each other.
But I’m a nice, forgiving person and say that those affectations are a part of Hollywood tradition, another convention being the actors’ tight bodies which are a few sizes smaller than wealthy 18th century adult aristocrats. And the slow motion and soundtrack combination when something extremely devious or extremely violent is taking place. And stop trying to make the Illuminati happen, it will never happen!
The film Jeanne into a Scarlett O’Hara figure, she submits to the deceitful and decadent court life, getting herself into a plot to steal from Cardinal Rohan (Jonathan Pryce,as French as he has been before) who thinks is a loan for Marie Antoinette (Joely Richardson) to buy a diamond necklace the latter can’t publicly do so. But Jeanne will rationalize that plan, saying ‘I’ll finally get my home back,’ to her gigolo (Simon Baker) to remind us of it once every ten minutes that she’s a good person underneath. And I suppose we all are.
This film also exists to get Milena Canonero adequately employed, two of her three Oscar wins are from her work in movies set in the Rococo period. There’s one scene where de la Motte wears the same pink number that Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette wears. Canonero also works through fashions with de le Motte’s arc between a dour woman into the perfect yet classy seductress. I also remember mr e hats, veils and head-gear for de la Motte and the other female characters here than in Coppola’s film.
Which brings me to Joely Richardson‘s Marie Antoinette, my first time seeing her in a movie. Her brash force and dismissal reminds me of Cate Blanchett while her naiveté feels like 90’s Uma Thurman. I was wondering if the film considered Joely’s sister Natasha for the role but the latter doesn’t seem as gullible. She also looks slightly closer to the Vigee-Lebun paintings of Antoinette than Norma Shearer on Dunst ever does.
I also actually like how the film portrays Antoinette. I have a hazy recollection of Shearer’s Antoinette, but Coppola kept Dunst’s Antoinette away from the backroom, her most political decision is staying with her King despite the riots getting closer to Versailles. This Antoinette has her hand on the chess board, refuses the titular necklace because it was commissioned for her grandfather-in-law’s mistress Madame du Barry, overseeing the Petit Trianon’s construction, personally vindicates Rohan or decides a public trial about the necklace as if her husband the King isn’t in the same room. Joely’s Antoinette thus has a more active role in politics than the two more famous Hollywood depictions of her. But in compromises by showing the revolution against her and her beheading, just like the film shows everything we already expect in a movie about that era.
The film, choosing more conventional ways instead of going for an auteurial vision of the past, competent in telling its story. But after the credits roll, we can always go to wikipedia and find out that real de la Motte wasn’t a Valois, that she was probably killed by debt collectors instead of royalists and become severely disappointed that she looked less like Swank and more like Karla Homolka.
Peter Jackson’s King Kong
Should I save my erudition for the time that the original King Kong and I will intersect again? Will the things I’ll be talking about here redundant with what I’ll be writing about in the original film? Should I be totally snarky for this post? Do you want to see Adrien Brody body check a dinosaur? To all those things, maybe. Every economical moment in the independently produced (an indie film before Cassavetes? I know, right) original film is expanded in Peter Jackson’s remake, whether that’s a good thing or not.
A fanatical 1930’s film director Carl Denham (Jack Black) and his film crew sail towards the South Pacific without telling all his crew that they’re looking for Skull Island, bearing a name that no Draper Daniels advertising should attract. Skull Island is exoticism manifested in cinema in the most stereotypical yet self-aware ways. When they actually get there they check off Stefon’s list – savages with ‘tribal’ body make up (there’s no way that their skin color is natural. It’s like the white native kid in “Giligan’s Island.”), King Kong (Andy Serkis), dinosaurs and giant insects. There are a lot of forested valleys sheltering at least the animals in this film, making me wonder why a place with this many inhabitants is as small as an island and hasn’t been officially mapped yet. But then I’m not a geographer. And of course, the two boat crew who will gather footage/rescue Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) will go through a process of elimination, the bit players eventually getting killed off.
I might also save my veneration of Watts for my inevitable by undrafted post on Mulholland Drive, so I’ll keep to talking about her presence in the film. I’ve seen this movie at least twice now, and her story is the one I remember instead of Fay Wray’s rendition of the same role. Unlike the modelesque or Manic Pixie Dream Girls today, he slightly button nose and small but thick lips make her look like a 1930’s beauty, elastic both to that decade’s glamour and poverty. Despite looking like a Ziegfeld/Busby girl, her more refined voice mixing in with her vaudeville colleagues make me think of what Katharine Hepburn’s character in Stage Door would have been like had the film shown her story for a longer time period.
One of the points of this film is to watch if she can scream like Fay Wray, but there’s a physical aspect to her role. Ann’s first steps towards the ship on the Big Apple’s docks look very much like a brave decision, being the first of many daring jumps she makes when she traverses through Skull Island’s dangerous terrain. She instinctively entertains Kong through the same flips and juggles that she performs on the New York the-a-ters. Who knew that vaudeville had practical uses? Running out of tricks, she eventually tells him ‘no,’ a simple word that she layers with defiance, crying out for Kong’s respect.
Most of the mythology within the original King Kong deal with ‘humanizing’ the eponymous animal. Yes, the first close-up we see of Kong shows a wound on the right side of his face, showing his vulnerability, but this remake enhances his ‘humanity’ as he learns it from Ann. He lets her live. He gets captured and chained, allegory of America’s history within Atlantic slavery, overreading of Kong’s provenance from the South Pacific as locus of post World War I American imperialism, yadda yadda yadda.
As he terrorizes New York, he grabs any blonde he sees as if obsessed by it but is able to differentiate between those paler examples to Ann than with the real thing. And since I’m running low on my word count, I’ll overread that the platonic union is Ann the oppressed woman and Kong, oppressed because he’s ‘different.’ She also teaches him another word, ‘beautiful,’ referring among things to her, to Skull Island, to the sunrise. Teaching Kong ‘humanity’ isn’t just about boundaries between persons as it is teaching him to appreciate what one experiences with others.
The movie’s fictional world also shows theatre, film and freak show as interchangeable, that there are no hierarchies between the three. The first sequence shows stages with diverse of stage acts in a city that is discovering ways to entertain itself. The film also shows these acts constantly change and the actors leaving one job for another only to find that next opportunity closed, just as what happens to Ann. New York’s players and playwrights have to move from one thing to another to survive. We’ve already seen Ann’s transformation, but playwright Carl practically kidnaps Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and both have to go along and keep writing and creating along the ride.
Later in the film, Carl’s blockbuster show plays blocks away from Jack’s replaceable comedy which is down the street from Ann’s dance revue. The more strange part about Carl’s show is the audience, paying an admission ticket only to be repulsed, decked out in furs as if watching Eugene O’Neill or a Balanchine. I shouldn’t have underestimated Skull Island earlier, since Manhattan Island itself has a lot to offer. And yes, the dangers within both islands are like oranges and stolen apples.
Gotham does have its advantage. Robert Osborne remarks that Kong’s size changes throughout the original. I can never train my eyes to detect those discrepancies, but I’m sure that Jackson makes his size more consistent in his remake. Being the big man on Skull Island, he’s dwarfed by the Empire State Building, a mammoth he has to climb and will unfortunately get him cornered.