Feminism / Films

Bitch Flicks’ Oscar/Independent Spirit Award Series: ‘Midnight in Paris’ and Its Woman Problem

Originally published at Bitch Flicks as part of their 2012 Oscar/Independent Spirit Award Series.

I’ve never understood why people adore Woody Allen and lavish him with accolades. I’ve never liked his films. Nope, not even the adored Annie Hall, aside from the FABulous fashions donned by Diane Keaton. I know, I know…I’ve braced myself for the verbal lashings that will undoubtedly ensue. Besides his creepy penchant for dating and then marrying his daughter, I loathe the way Allen generally depicts women in his films. Yes, his movies make some interesting gender commentaries and contain phenomenal female actors (Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Patricia Clarkson, Penelope Cruz). But it irritates me that the myriad interesting and intelligent female characters in his movies seem to be punished for their strength or continually fall for the neurotic chump’s charmbullshit.

In Allen’s latest Oscar-nominated endeavor, Midnight in Paris, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter struggling to write his first novel. He visits Paris with his constantly complaining fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams), as he yearns to live amongst his literary idols in the Roaring Twenties. Gil discovers that at midnight, he is able to transport to 1920s Paris and hobnob with writers, musicians and painters. A love letter to Paris and artists, Midnight in Paris explores the dichotomy between illusions of nostalgia and pragmatically embracing the present.

Allen has a knack for evoking the visceral beauty of a city: NYC in Annie Hall and Manhattan, Barcelona in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Paris in Midnight in Paris. With lush cinematography, Allen captures the seductive allure and breathtaking romance of Paris. He also infuses the film with myriad authors and artists from the 1920s, a bibliophile’s dream. These delightful distractions almost made me forget (almost) that while an okay film, it’s certainly not a great one.

Now, I didn’t hate Midnight in Paris like my kick-ass Bitch Flicks colleague Stephanie. But I totally understand why she did because it royally pissed me off too. The portrayal of women in this film is fucking problematic.

Kathy Bates is fantastic as writer and art collector Gertrude Stein. Yet she’s highly underutilized, striving to make the most of her small role. Incredibly influential, we witness Stein’s Parisian salon which attracted talented writers, like Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, whom she advised and mentored. After reviewing his manuscript, Gertrude bestows Gil with her wisdom: “We all fear death and question our place in the word. The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” Aside from Gertrude, none of the female characters are either truly likeable, interesting or complex individuals.

Audacious Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill, who tries her best to imbue her with charm), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston)’s wife and a writer in her own right, diminishes her artistic talent by saying, “…and I realize I’ll never write a great lyric and my talent really lies in drinking.”

An “art groupie” muse, Adriana (Marion Cotillard) designs couture fashion and becomes the object of Gil’s affection, despite his fiancé. When Gertrude reads the first line of Gil’s book aloud, Adriana praises it saying she’s “hooked” and later calls his musings on the “City of Light” poetic. Enamored with her, they begin to spend their evenings talking and walking around Paris. Cotillard is a divine actor. But her character is beige and boring. Although I must admit I’m glad Adriana ultimately chooses her own path.

In addition to seeking Stein’s advice on his book, Gil turns to another woman, an art museum guide (Carla Bruni), for advice on being in love with two women at the same time. Oh, and he also flirts with 25-year-old Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) (cause you know, that’s what middle-aged dudes do) who sells old records from the Jazz Age and shares his love of Paris in the rain.

But the worst female depiction – yeah, if you’ve seen the film, you know who I’m talking about – was Inez (Rachel McAdams). Inez complains about Paris’ charming bistros, getting wet in the rain, living outside the U.S. and Gil not purchasing $20,000 chairs. She undermines Gil’s talent in front of him to her friends saying, “He’s not sure he can write a novel.” Inez criticizes everything Gil says and does all while gushing over her crush, academic Paul (Michael Sheen), going so far as to shush Gil when he speaks in order to hear Paul’s pretentious diatribes. When Gil talks about Inez to others, he highlights her beauty (of course) and adds that she possesses a “sharp sense of humor.” Watching their relationship, it’s painfully obvious that there’s absolutely nothing keeping them together as the only thing they share is a mutual like of Indian food.

Now, I don’t automatically have a problem with a villainous or unlikeable female character, especially since there are so many female roles in the film. In fact, I often lament how unlike men, women aren’t allowed to play unlikeable or unsympathetic characters. But I have a huge problem with the “nag” role. The cliché of women as “nags” permeates pop culture.

I also have a huge problem that the seemingly sole reason Inez was made so horribly despicable was to “allow” Gil to cheat on his fiancé. The audience would sympathize with Gil for kissing another woman, buying her trinkets, baring his soul to her and planning to sleep with her even though he was engaged because his fiancé was such a shrew. Oh that’s right, I forgot! It’s okay to cheat on someone as long as they’re an asshole.

Allen told Rachel McAdams that she should play this role as she should “want to play some bitchy parts” as they’re more interesting. Maybe. But not this part. I didn’t find her character interesting at all. Yes, McAdams tries her best with the material she’s given. But the character is one-dimensional and annoying, lacking any depth or complexity.

Midnight in Paris, like pretty much all of Allen’s films, lacks diversity. They’re a sea of white with no people of color anywhere in sight. Oh I take that back. There’s a black woman in a car that Gil gets in on his “way” to the 1920s, one shot of Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland) dancing that lasts all of 30 seconds and a few black people watching her dance.

Along with race, sexual identities are also omitted. The film contains three famous lesbians: Gertrude Stein, Stein’s life partner Alice B. Toklas (Thérèse Bourou-Rubinsztein) and writer Djuna Barnes (Emmanuelle Uzan). Of all three, Gil only alludes to Djuna’s sexuality when he says she led when they danced together. So lesbianism is almost completely erased, paving the way for good ole’ heteronormativity.

The only overt gender commentary occurs when Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) says, “Pablo Picasso thinks women are only to sleep with or to paint,” but he believes “a woman is equal to a man in courage.” Which is interesting since Allen is a person who in his personal life doesn’t always believe equality in relationships is desirable: “Sometimes equality in a relationship is great, sometimes inequality makes it work.” (???) Yeah, this explains a lot. He also has a penchant for younger women, in his movies and in reality, because younger women are more innocent, “before they get spoiled by the world.” Gag.

This attitude that older women are less desirable as romantic partners seems to echo throughout the film, particularly in its ending. Don’t stay with the older (relatively speaking) jaded woman. Get with the young, innocent girl! While numerous women abound, everything in the film revolves around Gil, a stand-in for Woody Allen. Women are merely a buffet to be sampled – if one doesn’t work out, oh well, try another!

I’ll admit; the book lover in me was almost seduced. It felt like a light-hearted, whimsical, bibliophile remake of Purple Rose of Cairo. Instead of film characters leaping off-screen, novelists from the past reside in alongside the present. But there is no way in hell this should ever be nominated for a Best Picture or Director Oscar. It’s nothing more than an esthetically pleasing diversion.

I swear people nominated Midnight in Paris for so many awards because Hollywood is lazy. Rather than nominating ground-breaking, intelligent films like Pariah, The Whistleblower or Young Adult, this gets nominated because Allen is a famous, old, white male director. Good job, Hollywood. Way to keep perpetuating the dude machine.

The film suffers from a major woman problem. The women in the film are just as intelligent and talented as their male contemporaries. Gil turns to women for advice and guidance. Yet Allen reduces almost all of them to love interests and arm candy, nothing more than satellites to a dude.

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2 thoughts on “Bitch Flicks’ Oscar/Independent Spirit Award Series: ‘Midnight in Paris’ and Its Woman Problem

  1. It’s kind of odd, but i’ve always been fascinated by Woody Allen.
    As a child, i fell in love with films like “Take the money & Run” and “Annie Hall.”
    I’ve even recently purchased the new PBS documentary, because i find Allen
    so interesting, smart & funny.

    Having said that, i completely understand your take on him.
    Like him, i always sort of fixate on much younger women, but i admit it’s getting
    ridiculous the older he gets.
    He’ll generally cast only beautiful women as the romantic partner, and somehow
    Woody’s charm & wit (or the actor playing the “Woody” character/role), is
    enough to make the women find him desirable.

    Recent films like, “Whatever works,” with Evan Rachel Wood, deffinitely
    had a creepy under-current.
    But i loved, “Midnight in Paris.”
    Woody Allen has that ability to make really great films & really bad films.
    But you watch them, because they always have that potential for
    excellence.

  2. Sigh. Why O Why won’t feminists steer clear of the work of male artists they profess to despise? More to the point would this Harpie be happier if Allen stopped employing women and made all male films? Woody Allen is a gargantuan talent, one of the world’s most successful and adored auteurs whose peer reviewed films have won multiple awards for storytelling, technical achievement and performance. Who are you in comparison to this man with a typewriter? Where is your poetic or visual imagination? What have you contributed to world cinema or to our understanding of the human condition? Your ludicrous and fraudulent claim that he married his daughter is the aporia to unravel your undereducated thinking. Women will never
    en masse achieve what men have achieved in any field of artistic endeavour. Nature has decreed that the lions will never lie down with the lamb, so women and men have different abilities as dictated by nature. The appreciation and production of art are just two.

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