Another Country

‘Midnight in Paris’ & ‘The Princess of Montpensier’

I should have been the ideal viewer for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, if its enthusiasts are right in calling it a “romantic love letter to Paris” (David Denby). I had been writing this love letter in my heart years before I visited the City of Light. When I was a kid, it was the seventeenth-century Paris of The Three Musketeers that I dreamed of. Later the nineteenth-century comédie humaine of Balzac and the belle époque of Apollinaire and Proust so occupied my fantasy life that when I actually arrived in the city I resented the traffic and the cell phones. Midnight’s hero, a young Hollywood scriptwriter named Gil Pender, besotted with the movable feast days of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, experiences exactly what I longed for: a time-trip back to the 1920s where he meets Hem, Scotty, Pablo, Gertrude, the whole crew. Shuttling back and forth between his nocturnal bliss and the daylight capitol where he must put up with a kvetching fiancée and her dreary, reactionary parents, Gil must decide whether it’s really worthwhile to hang on to the present when the past holds all the magic he needs, plus good advice about writing from Gertrude Stein and romantic opportunities with the former mistress of Modigliani.

Yes, Gil’s fantasy was my fantasy, yet the movie ended up barely holding my attention, though I periodically laughed at the literary in-jokes. (Gil tells T. S. Eliot that nowadays we measure out our lives in cocaine spoons.) What begins as a charming holiday picture with an appropriately unhurried pace and wry tone turns out to be a holiday from the demands of making a comedy-fantasy that can strike chords in us, the way Groundhog Day and Allen’s own Zelig did.

Allen is one of those moviemakers (John Huston and Billy Wilder were others) whose direction is always exactly as good as his scripts (unlike, say, Orson Welles, whose visual magic sometimes transformed the trashy writing he handled late in his career). When his dialogue scintillates, when his characters engage us and the plots cohere, then the careful compositions and steady tempos work well, as in his last good movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

But in Midnight the thin characterization of its hero seems to bring out a clunkiness in Allen’s staging. The movements within the frame are either too static or too predictable, with the camera waiting all too patiently for interesting behavior or witty dialogue from the hero.

Allen’s previous heroes, versions of himself, were neurotic messes, but we felt for them because Woody gave us the hilarious components of the neuroses: comically dismal childhoods, wrong expectations of women, affectionate mockery of a knee-jerk liberal’s politics. But Gil is just a blob with the usual Woody squirminess but no background. His infatuation with the 1920s is like that of a million undergraduate English majors, but it’s practically his only characteristic. We’re told he’s a screenwriter, but what kind of movies does he write? How did he become involved with such a callous young woman? He’s not even fun while needling his Republican in-laws-to-be. Because of Owen Wilson’s delivery, the needling becomes listless, slapdash talk.

Feeling his age lately, Allen quite rightly has cast younger actors as his surrogates without modifying the nature of the urban, Jewish, jittery, neurotic roles. In Celebrity, Kenneth Branagh did an abysmal imitation of Woody that undermined an otherwise interesting film. John Cusack was excellent in Bullets over Broadway, somehow fusing the Allen persona with his own distinct personality. In Whatever Works, Larry David was just his usual rebarbative self in an equally irritating movie. Now Owen Wilson has the task. He projects a lazy, country-boy quality that is often attractive but just as often contradicts what’s in the script. The urban snark is defanged, the hypochondria now makes no sense, and the nervous intellectuality and artist-worship seem misplaced in the mouth of this overgrown, enervated version of Huck Finn.

And the expat legends, who should have been the bonbons of the movie, are just as dull as Gil. Since Woody intended these to be the myths we have made of these artists rather than the real people, why do we get a nondescript Fitzgerald, an unattractive Zelda, a blah Picasso, and a smaller-than-life Hemingway? There is one exhilarating exception: as Salvador Dalí, Adrien Brody takes a man who was a self-made comic monster and pushes him further into some empyrean of the ridiculous. A marvelous cameo, and here’s hoping that Woody will cast Brody as his next surrogate hero.

It may be that I’ve been extra rough on this film because I saw too many possibilities in the story. It does have several funny jokes and some beautiful post-card-ready shots of a gorgeous city. It’s a movie that passes the time nicely. Trouble is, I’ve never gone to the movies to pass the time.

Of course you don’t have to be Gil Pender to time-travel into France’s past. Just go to Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier and you will be plunged into the violent clashes of the 1560s between Catholics and the Protestant reformers led by the Prince de Conde. At the beginning of this tale by Madame de La Fayette (a seventeenth-century writer best known to Anglophones for The Princess of Cleves), we see a decent man do an indecent thing. Overcome by the delirium of battle, the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a warrior for the Huguenots, dispatches an entire peasant family, including a pregnant mother, then frenziedly wipes his sword on the grass outside the burning hut, declaring, “No more barbarity for me.” His pledge to absolute pacifism is a spiritual revolution for a man who once schooled the heir of the noble (and Catholic) Montpensier family not only in philosophy but in the martial arts. It also makes him persona non grata to both the Catholics and the Protestants. But soon enough, the Count is welcomed back into the Montpensier family. Then the film seems—but only seems—to shift focus from Chabannes to Marie (Mélanie Thierry), who is so infatuated with the dashing, opportunistic Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel) that she at first resists her father’s scheme to marry her into the wealthier and better connected Montpensiers. She finally yields to parental pressure and even tries to be a loyal wife to Chabannes’s old pupil, the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), who, soon after their wedding, goes off to war, leaving Chabannes behind with his wife to keep her company and give her an education. Eventually, fate throws Marie into the company of the still amorous Henri. She resists, she wavers, she succumbs, she repents and equivocates over her repentance.

Every love ballet of the fluctuating emotions must teeter on the verge of soap opera, but what keeps this film strong and true is the way most of the emotional writhing takes place within the purview of Chabannes, who tries to reinforce the girl’s good intentions by telling her that the order humankind perceives in the universe teaches us to maintain order in our own lives. Anguished by memories of his own violence, he sees the social disorder of adultery as a mirror of the bloody, primal disorder tearing his country apart. A pacifist renouncing bloodshed, he urges his pupil toward a moral and emotional peace. And because he is in love with Marie himself, he sets her an example by confessing his susceptibility, thus firmly placing it in abeyance.

Marie continues to be inwardly riven but the ultimate tragedy turns out to be Chabannes’s, not Marie’s. Having championed marital faithfulness, he ends up facilitating her rendezvous with Henri. It’s not that he wants her to sin, of course, but he doesn’t want her betrayals revealed to her already jealous husband before she can rediscover the path of honor. Trying to give her marriage a stay of execution until she can regain firm moral ground, he ends up looking like an unpaid pimp. That’s his first tragedy.

The second takes place during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which Catholic troops slaughtered Huguenots at the instigation of the Queen Mother. Having quit the Montpensiers and taken up a life of Spartan simplicity, Chabannes sees a woman about to be slain. Remembering the killings he himself once perpetrated, he pleads with blood-maddened soldiers to refrain. Failing at that, he draws his sword. Thus, a defender of marriage has aided adulterers, and a man pledged to peace ends up shedding more blood—all because he’s trying to do the right thing.

The movie’s compelling storytelling flows from the superb script by Tavernier, Jean Cosmos, and François-Olivier Rousseau, but the shot-by-shot, moment-by-moment sensuousness that drives the story home is achieved by Tavernier’s direction. Here is a sumptuousness that never drifts into decoration; the visual details always point, never lull.

The film transports us to a world that is radically different from ours and yet speaks to our concerns. For example, our heroine’s bridal bed is separated by nothing but curtains from the observation of her parents, in-laws, and servants, who gather nearby to make sure the sexual union (and thereby the union of the two families) is consummated and the hymeneal blood on the sheets held up for inspection, like the signature on a contract. Plainly that era’s ideas about privacy are alien to ours, but are our leading political, financial, and show-business families any less public in their sexual and marital unions and disunions?

The unostentatious grace of all the actors—the security of their deportment turns their gorgeous costumes into clothes—testifies to L. P. Hartley’s maxim that the past is another country; they do things differently there. First among equals is Lambert Wilson as Chabannes. Not long ago in these pages (April 22), I praised his performance as the abbot in Of Gods and Men. Here he plays another intellectual of deep spirituality, but how sharply he distinguishes one from the other. Brother Christian is a man whose doubts and compunctions never leave him, and whose gait and gestures consequently are slow and deliberate. But Chabannes, a crack swordsman and rider as well as a scholar, is possessed of a volatility, even a violence, that always flows under the surface of his thoughtfulness. As Chabannes ponders the order of the universe or quotes St. Paul, Wilson never lets us forget that something is coiled inside this man, waiting to be released—a release that might ignite tragedy. A major performance by a major actor in a major movie.

Published in the 2011-07-15 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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