Day One at the Cannes Film Festival is jam-packed. We begin with a press screening for the opening night gala, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, followed by three back-to-back press conferences. The French used to believe in lunch. Hey, it’s a new world. Woody explains how he struggled to come up with a script to match his title, Midnight in Paris; then Bernardo Bertolucci, recipient of an honorary Palme D’Or, mused fondly about Last Tango in Paris; finally we had our ritual audience with the Cannes jury, whose president, Robert De Niro, was about as responsive as a waiter in Paris, as he lived up to his legendary capacity to say absolutely nothing in as few words as possible.
Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, by the way, didn’t show. The French First Lady, who has a recurring cameo in Allen’s film as an amiable tour guide, sent her regrets. When Allen was asked how he came to cast her, he said, “One morning I was just having breakfast with the Sarkozys and she walked into the room and she was very beautiful and very charming and charismatic. I said ‘Would you like to be in a movie? A small role, just for fun.’ She said I would like to be in one of your movies because I’d like to tell my grandchildren one day I was in the movie.’ She was everything I hoped she would be. She’s not a lawyer or a diplomat even though she’s married to a political man. She’s from a show business background. She came in and did the part very gracefully. It was fun. It was a nice experience for her, I’m happy to say. She was very happy with how the film came out and very happy with the way the cameramen filmed her.”
We never got to ask Woody how he just happened to be having breakfast with the Sarkozys.
For Woody Allen, Cannes is by now almost as familiar as Manhattan. Midnight in Paris, his 44nd movie, is his fifth to open the festival. Like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it’s another postcard-pretty valentine of auteur tourism, with Americans falling into foreign hands, though it lacks the character work (or fireworks) of VCB. But it was warmly received here. With its unabashed francophilia, it could have been made for Cannes, and who knows, maybe it was. Midnight in Paris is, quite proudly, a mere bagatelle, a lightly satirical conjuring of 1920s Paris, set in the context of a crumbling 2010 marriage between two well-heeled American tourists, Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams). Time travel makes it happen.
Wilson’s naturally disingenuous, slightly stammery delivery makes him a perfect Allen surrogate. McAdams, who has a habit of being consistently better than her material, shines in an unsympathetic role as his nagging fiancé—Canada’s sweetheart is cast against type as a Republican who’s overly impressed by their shallow friend, pedantic know-it-all played by Michael Sheen. Wilson plays a familiar Allen protogonist, a frustrated novelist who worships the past and is aching to escape the hackdom of Hollywood screenwriting success. He deserts Inez and her friends each each night to walk the streets of Paris—where at the stroke of midnight he’s magically spirited away into the émigré salon-monde of the ‘20s. He mingles with the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali, Buñuel, Picasso and Gertrude Stein, and falls for a dreamy Marion Cotillard, the next best thing to Edith Piaf. Aside from the abrasive chemistry between Wilson and McAdams, the movie’s pleasure lies in its greatest hits parade of coy cameo impersonations, from Alison Pill’s Zelda Fitzgerald to Adrien Brody’s Salvador Dali. Around every burnished corner of this closeted period film is a fresh surprise. Welcome to Woody Tussaud’s House of Wax.
Allen has become a casting virtuoso. He can get Oscar winners like Brody, Cotillard and Katherine Bates to fill out minor roles. But at the press conference he positively gushed about landing Owen Wilson: “Owen is the opposite of me. I’m very Manhattan, very East Coast. Owen is very West Coast. He personifies that in his whole demeanour. He’s relaxed and he’s a beach lover and this gives the character an enormous dimension that I could never have given it, nor could I have written it for another actor.”
I asked Allen if Wilson’s rom-com romance with McAdams in Wedding Crashers had anything to do with him pairing them again. “I’d seen Rachel in a film with Owen years ago,” he said, as if the title escaped him, “and I thought she was sensational. She was beautiful and sexy and funny and a wonderful actress, and I wanted to work with her. And the opportunity came up. I didn’t like the fact that they had worked together before. That was a negative to me. I figured people will think, ‘Oh, it’s Owen and Rachel again.’ But I felt there’s nothing I could do about it. They’re both great and I want them both. I wanted to get Rachel at any cost, and I was very lucky to get Owen. I’ve always been lucky with casting. The truth in casting is to hire great people, let them do what they do, don’t interfere with them too much, and then when they’re great, take credit for it. I’ve done this for many years and it works like a charm.”