By Miguel Faus
For several years, Woody Allen’s extraordinary talent as a director has been disputed by claims that he is, above all, a brilliant screenwriter. Perhaps his understated style, which privileges long takes in wide shots, has led people to assume that his films are rather un-directed - but a close look at any of his films invalidate these claims.
His Midnight in Paris (2011) opens with a musical intro that is inspired by the intro of Manhattan. It gives one a touristy and embellished vision of the city of Paris, and also plants the seed that later makes us understand, in the start of the next scene, that the relationship of the protagonists is stagnant (because we are introduced to them in a dark tunnel, rather than an idyllic Parisian location).
On the other hand, the beautiful shots of this introduction express Gil’s (Owen Wilson) fascination with Paris. They are idealized images, portraying American’s idealized fascination with the city. In a way, the film starts inside Gil’s dream of Paris before waking up to the reality of the dark tunnel that is his real relationship with Inez (Rachel McAdams).
The music chosen for this introduction is also distinctive. It’s a theme by Sidney Bechet (coincidentally, another American who moved to Paris), that is musically based on repetitive cycles that establish a sort of small canon. And guess what? That’s exactly the way that Midnight in Paris is structured, in repetitive cycles: days of tourism with Inez, time-travelling nights, lonely strolls along the Seine, encounters with his two French girls…the structure repeats itself over and over again, revealing something new each time.
Immediately after this idyllic view of Paris, we cut to a black shot in which Gil and Inez speak in the dark. From the very beginning, Woody Allen is very precise in his depiction of this couple: they are in a tunnel, in the darkest possible place of their relationship. That’s essentially the premise of the film: an unhappy couple have to find a way to get out of this dark tunnel, either together or separately. And what’s the very first image we see after exiting this dark tunnel?
This shot can be interpreted in several ways. From the outset, it’s clear that this colourful postcard image radically opposes the darkness we came from. This image could be seen as literally a poster image, a postcard… a prefabricated, iconic image of beauty that can be bought in any gift shop. Therefore, this is an image that has lost its representative capacity, an image that is no longer alive. And that’s precisely what bothers Gil, this touristic, shallow, superficial view of life where nothing is really felt or desired anymore.
After this first scene, the whole first part of the film focuses on making it crystal clear that the relationship between Gil and Inez is completely broken.
In the scene where Gil has dinner with the in-laws, the discrepancies between them are made perfectly clear through the dialogue and editing. And just as we understand that Inez’s parents aren’t fond of Gil, the alternative arrives: Paul, the husband they would want for their daughter.
The scene had remained completely static up until this point, but now the camera movement marks the change introduced by Paul’s arrival, and the balance in the composition is broken when Inez stands up and moves to the other side, leaving Gil separated from the group. This is the start of a tool that Allen will use extensively throughout the film: meticulously choreographing actors in wide shots to express their allegiances and discrepancies.
In the following scene, Gil and Inez arrive at their hotel room to sleep, and again the mise-en scene makes it clear that there’s no hope for them. First, they enter the room separately, and then they keep moving around the room in a furious dance of opposing directions that makes it impossible for them to meet. Then comes the moment of direct confrontation: at first, Gil appears like an out-of-focus reflection in the mirror, because that’s how he feels: erased. Then they sit on the bed and remain in diverging positions, with their backs to each other. And when she approaches and stretches on the bed, although they are closer, their heads are forming a diagonal, stretched out to be as far apart as two characters can be within the same frame. Finally, they end up kissing… but after the sudden cut, the first person we see is… Paul! The alternative.
The wine tasting scene has another perfectly choreographed movement that gives us a clear picture of Gil and Inez’s relationship: they start the scene with Inez’s parents, then they leave and share a moment of cuteness (although his sensual advance is clearly rejected by her), and end up with Inez moving closer to Paul. So, Inez’s journey in the scene is from her parents, to Gil… to Paul.
The following morning, when they wake up in the hotel after Gil’s first time-travel, the opposition between them couldn’t be clearer: she is ready to go, moving from one side of the frame to the other… and then we cut to the reverse shot of Gil, frozen in bed, completely static. Again, they are out of sync..
This same situation is repeated the following morning. Additionally, this time Gil tries to seduce Inez, but she says she has to run because she has to meet with… Paul. At the end of the scene, Gil remains pensive because he is starting to think that maybe Paul’s presence in Inez’s life is too much, so we cut from his pensive image to Rodin’s Thinker. And to make the parallelism stronger, Allen’s camera pans down from the statue to the thinker of the film, Gil, who starts to think seriously about his own life, his relationship with Inez, what has to do with Adriane.
But there are two other women with whom Gil will interact, and his relationship with them is very different to his relationship with Inez, hence the scenes portraying them are also very different.
The first of these women is Adriane (Marion Cotillard), Picasso's lover whom Gil meets at Gertrude Stein's house, falling in love with her on the spot. There’s obviously a huge difference between an exciting new love affair and an agonizing long relationship, so Woody Allen films the three sequences that Gil shares with Adriane in a very different way to his scenes with Inez.
The first of these scenes is when they meet, at Gertrude Stein's house, and they talk about her relationship with Picasso and about the book that Gil is writing. Their dialogue on the sofa is filmed on a shot-reverse shot that is far more balanced and calm than the shot-reverse shots that we’ve seen of Gil and Inez, which were full of oppositions, contrasts and diverging compositions. Here, instead, the characters are filmed in equivalent shots, balanced and rather close to the eye-line, conveying a stability and harmony that Gil has never enjoyed with Inez. However, the separation that the shot-reverse shot imposes (separating two characters in two opposing shots) is essential, not only because they have just met, but also because they’re two characters who come from completely different worlds (and even times). Therefore, they are still not given a two-shot that joins them in the frame.
This only arises the second time they meet, in which Allen chooses to use a two-shots throughout.
On the third night that they are together, again the mise-en-scene progresses in line with their relationship, towards more intimacy and greater harmony. Once more, they are always shot in beautiful, stable two-shots… until they reach the climax of their relationship, the passionate kiss in the streets of Paris. The arrival of the car already motivates a cut that changes their two-shot, from a balanced composition to a much more unstable, uneasy one… and as soon as we get to the Belle Epoque and the conflict appears (because she wants to stay), Allen goes back to the shot-reverse shot, separating the characters as their relationship starts to disintegrate. To sum up, the formal structure of the scenes with Adriane is rigorous in its circularity, and notably different to that of Inez’s scenes.
The third woman in Gil’s journey is Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), the antique seller. Gabrielle is the least prominent character in terms of screen time, but her story is the only one that has a happy ending, despite the openness of the film’s ending. Gabrielle works in the film as a sort of projection, in the real world, of what Adriane represents in the ideal world.
The first time Gil meets Gabrielle is at the antiques market, and is filmed in a single shot in which the camera pans from him to her, and back. The scene breaks when Inez arrives looking for Gil and he is forced to leave. Allen chooses to film this first scene in a way that is different to any scene he has shared with Inez or Adriane. It’s not as disconnected and violent as the scenes with Inez, but also not as harmonious and sensual as his first night with Adriane. Therefore, it’s maybe a more authentic representation of relationships.
The second time Gabrielle appears, there is a much greater closeness between them. At first the camera moves towards her, leaving Gil out of shot, because they still don’t really know each other, but he will end up entering the frame to end up in a harmonious and balanced 2-shot, very similar to the shots he shared with Adriane in his Parisian walks.
The third scene with Gabrielle is at the end of the film, when their flirting starts to be more apparent. The scene starts with a shot-reverse shot that has a very interesting circular structure: it starts with him, again, entering her shot, and when she asks him what he's doing there, Allen films him in a very frontal close-up, with the little lights of the city in the background. At first, her reverse shots remain wider, over Gil’s shoulder, because she is still not as involved in the situation. After a few beats, however, Allen introduces her close-up, and so the scene seems to reach a peak because now Gil and Gabrielle are at the same level, sharing equal shots (which are, by the way, closer and more frontal than any close-up we ever saw in the scenes with Adriane). However, there’s still one piece missing for the scene to become fully circular (conveying the full harmony of the characters encounter), and that’s the wider shot of Gil, over Gabrielle’s shoulder. After that shot that closes the circle, it starts to rain and Gil and Gabrielle go for a happy walk in the Parisian rain, which as we know was Gil's dream from the beginning. A dream that he could never accomplish with Inez (who explicitly rejected the idea, forcing him into a taxi), and that, despite everything, he was never able to experience with Adriane.