Oscar Best Picture Nominee: ‘Midnight in Paris’ and Its Woman Problem

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in ‘Midnight in Paris’
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 charm bullshit.

In Allen’s latest Oscar-nominated endeavor, Midnight in Paris, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a successful 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 capturesthe 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 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.

Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams in ‘Midnight in Paris’

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 are not 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.


  • Posted February 17, 2012 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    I hate this movie. Aside from Allen’s typical hateful treatment of women characters, it’s treatment of the historical figures is paper-thin and full of cheap gags, like OW’s giving Bunuel the idea for The Exterminating Angel, that make the audience feel smart for getting the references, but don’t have any real depth or perceptiveness about these people and the era they lived in.

    It’s an empty little trifle of a film, made completely unpalatable by the horrific characterizations of Inez and her family. Allen has to be the laziest screenwriter around, and still gets this astounding acclaim.

    I used to like him. The women characters in his films used to be more complex and funny and interesting. I feel like ever since his disgusting treatment of Mia Farrow and his inappropriate relationship with Soon-Yi came to light, his entire career has been a defensive effort to justify his awful personal behavior.

  • Posted February 17, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    While I feel that ‘Midnight in Paris’ was certainly not one of the best movies of the year, I still feel I have to defend it somewhat against exaggerated complaints. I agree that his public relationship issues don’t paint Woody Allen in the best light, but that shouldn’t be a legitimate reason to hold a grudge against his films.

    While you’re right and most of the female roles are reduced (hell, most of the roles are small except for those of Wilson, Cotillard and McAdams), I actually thought Inez’s role was fairly complex. It wasn’t anything McAdams did per se, but the way in which Gil obviously reveres her even as the audience doesn’t see anything redeeming. It’s almost as if the two share a history that didn’t begin at the start of the film, one in which she perhaps wasn’t quite the shrew she is here. It was nice to see a character with that kind if mysterious backstory, and for all we know, being around her parents and pretentious friends is what brings that sass out of her in the first place. Maybe Gil made her look differently at things at one point.

    As for Gil “cheating” on Inez, I never quite saw it that way. Yes, he developed an attraction to Adriana, but he still holds feelings for Inez, and questions whether one could be in love with two people at once. Is that not possible? I’ve certainly been under the impression that it was. *SPOILER* And let’s not forget that Inez REALLY DOES cheat on Gil. Actual cheating is not equal to potential cheating. Being tempted is human, not criminal. *SPOILER END* God forbid Gil even SPEAKS with someone who shares his love for 1920’s music, lest it be called flirting. We’re not even sure he gets together with Lea Seydoux at the end; they may just end up friends, and that would be a reasonable conclusion. More to the point, the love affair in this film was never between Gil and any of the women present, but between Gil and the city of Paris.

    Does ‘Midnight in Paris’ deserve its nominations? I’d argue that Allen’s use of excellent cinematography in capturing Paris on film is excellent, not to mention his turning of Owen Wilson’s acting ability from mediocre to impressive, and earned him the Best Director nod. Best Picture? Maybe not, but it’s certainly more deserving than some of the films that also received nominations, especially the Spielbergianly overrated ‘War Horse’ or the extremely blah ‘Tree of Life’. The films you put forward are interesting choices however. ‘Pariah’ I’ll agree seems like an oversight (I admittedly haven’t yet seen it), but not everybody was as enamored with what I thought was a trite ‘Young Adult’, and ‘Whistleblower’ was far less regarded. While they may have had fewer so-called “women problems”, ‘Midnight in Paris” was a beautiful, aesthetically-pleasing film that has gotten a lot of flack on this sight, and as a frequent moviegoer I respectfully disagree as to the reasons.

  • Posted February 17, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    wow.i LOVE this movie. and i don’t think there’s a woman problem here at all. I thought Kathy Bates played a very smart, and grounded woman. this is a fantasy in a way, but based on some historical figures. i also thought marion was so deliciously nostalgic and whimsical. yes, she was the other woman, but once she learned she didn’t have a chance with owen’s character she recognized that. i was never really a fan of woody allen unti this movie really. and i did think many of his past films were overrated. just not this one. this one was spot on for me, and made me finally GET woody allen. he adds a neuroses to both male and female characters that other writers fail to do

  • Posted April 12, 2012 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    Seems like feminist are always calling everything sexist. This movie didn’t exactly portray men in best light either. I thought it was a good movie overall. Slow in some places.

  • Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    Another lazy Woodie Allen movie. Must have got a ton of $$ from the Paris Film board to make it there instead of New York. The last 10 mins are just slapped together too.

  • Posted April 14, 2013 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    You must be an American pseudo-writer, nothing wrong with that. But as your culture, the American culture, you are full of clichés and carbon copy thoughts -Xerox thoughts-. Your lack of flavor for life and artistic sense permeates in all your comments. I will recommend
    you to travel more, live abroad, learn about different ways of lives and engage with real artists and thinkers, then; you’ll probably be able to understand and appreciate the true talent of Woody Allen’s work. This film was exquisitely accomplished; a master piece where complexity is transfered into a simple language. The issue of the lack of presence non-whites or non-gays in the film is irrelevant to the
    structure of the story or to the purpose of this artistic project. Engaging in that kind of diatribe is a manifestation of ignorance in this particular art subject (referring to film). Stick to the ART ! I bet you’re no artist.

    PS. I am not pro-Jew, pro-White, anti-gay or racist. I believe in good art work and if it comes from a Jewish Black Lesbian I will appreciate it and admire it , as well as, I do with this Woody Allen’s film.

  • Posted April 15, 2013 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Um, what the fuck is a “pseudo writer??” No, I’m a writer and newsflash, writers ARE artists. Yes, I have traveled globally, not that it’s really any of your business. No, pointing out a film’s disparity in portraying diversity — LGBTQ characters, characters of color, complex women, characters with disabilities — is neither irrelevant or antithetical to art. Art criticism is an important component of societal discourse. Media and art impact how we view the world. I don’t have a problem with you or anyone else for that matter liking Woody Allen. I do however have a problem with personal insults.

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