The Masters in Paris

by Srikanth Mantravadi

Some thoughts on Midnight in Paris, Hugo and the two masters behind them.

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The French are taking over the awards, if not the movies, this year, in some form or the other. Your and my ears have already numbed from all the buzz around the silent movie The Artist. For a silent movie, the din around The Artist is nothing short of deafening. As if that weren’t enough we also have the old masters Messrs Allen & Scorsese (Sounds like a law firm,no?) weave magic onscreen by putting Paris through a time machine.

Some of the renaissance spirit that Allen exquisitely invokes in his warm movie seems to have infected him too for in Midnight in Paris we see vintage Woody. He surely rolls back the years. While his protagonist Gil Pender might yearn for the Paris of the 20s for the writer in him to blossom, Woody doesn’t need to look anywhere for the spark. He still has it in him to write a script that is tender, quirky and nostalgic.     

Another director, who wasn’t quite looking for reinvention but was nevertheless being viewed with scepticism, is Martin Scorsese. There was talk about undeserved recognition for a supposedly watered down remake. There was talk about how he was making middle of the road thrillers now. Both of which I thoroughly liked especially the latter which showed that the master had an delightful feel for psychological themes and atmosphere. All of this he varnishes on Hugo. It is a touching movie with layers of insight. It is a mystery alright but it is also a story about a young boy’s love for his father, his friendships, dreams and movies. Scorsese stages it perfectly and manages to bring the soul of Paris to the Montparnasse railway station. This is like Home Alone for adults that children can also enjoy.

Both movies truly bring out the innocence and joy of movies and truly exploit the cinematic medium for what it is. Pure entertainment with a dash of nostalgia. There is no fuss over the technique employed; Just simple storytelling.

Both the directors invoke the bohemian spirit of Paris, Scorsese less so in Hugo but the place still leaves its indelible mark on the movie. While Woody makes us swoon in the splendour of Paris’ finest streets and buildings,  Scorsese goes a step ahead and builds an entire city within the Montparnasse! The movies are also populated by a rich tapestry of characters. Midnight in Paris is especially delightful when it springs one surprise after the other when the Lost Generation comes alive. Such is the collective brilliance of those souls that Woody just had to embody the character with the right person and give them an air of authenticity (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali especially stand out) – both of which he does marvellously. There is a fine balance that has to be struck while making a movie of this sort. The initial fascination of the viewer as he grapples with the high concept can wane quickly if he realises that the director’s imagination begins and ends there and that the movie is nothing but a guided celebrity tour. But in Woody’s interpretation of the age the characters come alive in flesh and blood. You know he is not just throwing around names to impress you although that cannot be ruled out altogether. The movie has a lovely sepia tint even in the modern day portions which made me wonder if Paris itself is bathed in that kind of an ethereal glow all the time. Owen Wilson is the only disappointment in the whole movie – His part edgy, part excited portrayal making him look slightly juvenile at times. But that you’ll notice only if you can  take your eyes off the absolutely alluring Marion Cotillard!

The best touch in the movie for me was when Pender tells Bunuel the concept for (The Discreet Charm.) The Exterminating Angel. It is meta moments like this that make MIP magical.      

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Scorsese’s setting is more festive than bohemian. There is a certain Christmassy feel to the entire movie. This could be because of two reasons – The amiable set of characters that populate the station be it the florist, the lady with the cute poodle(?), the gentleman trying to woo the lady and even Sacha Cohen’s caricaturish grumpy policeman with his dog. (In fact mans best friends get a lot of screen time in this year’s Oscar nominations. Uggie the dog, Blackie and the cute poodle.) These characters set the tone when the movie begins. The sense of mystery is innocuous, ephemeral and only at the level of children. Adults will realise 20 minutes into the movie that maintaining suspense is the last thing on Scorsese’s mind. Instead he fashions a heart warming movie around the indomitable spirit of a ragamuffin. Along the way he packs in a homage to the auteurs of early cinema like George Melies. There is also redemption and vindication to be had. (This is also the theme that resonates in The Artist which is also about changing circumstances forcing an artist out of his craft and livelihood.) If there is anyone who genuinely deserves to pay homage to old and forgotten masterpieces, it is Scorcese, for his homage mirrors his concern for these movies in real life. The cast is great. I have nothing against precocious kids but they irritate me. Here they play it with the right amount of timidity, resolve and a sense of wonder. Ben Kingsley is fantastic. The unadulterated emotions are sure to touch the audiences hearts. It is a great holiday movie and will possibly be watched by a lot of families on lazy Sunday afternoons or Christmas. It is shot beautifully and is languorous at times. (I was only watching a BRrip on an LCD screen). I can only imagine its gorgeousness on an IMAX 3D screen!

We must be grateful that unlike Coppola, the other great of New Hollywood, Scorsese’s ambition hasn’t lessened over time. I thought that with Shutter Island Scorcese was also taking the path of Coppola – making stylish yet slight B movies. But that, it seems, was just a flash in the pan. He has made a movie that will rejuvenate the much reviled 3D format.

Hugo and Midnight in Paris easily traipse into my all time favourite list. They are movies made with a lot of heart and emotion and showcase two masters at the peak of their genius. I do not know whether these movies deserve awards or not but they surely deserve the love of the viewer.  

(First posted on The Doubt Express at http://thedoubtexpress.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/the-masters-2/.)

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