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Woody Allen meets the press in Cannes.Reuters/Reuters

France loves Woody. Of director Woody Allen's 42-plus films, 11 have been shown at the Cannes Film Festival and five have opened the event. On Wednesday night, Midnight in Paris - one of his more appealing efforts in recent years - opened this year's festival after earning warm applause at a press screening earlier in the day.

It's a shameless love letter to the capital of the country that, outside of the United States, has most embraced him. The film begins with a picture-postcard montage of Paris's famous sights, on a sunny afternoon, through a rainy evening and a sparkling night.

All this is the set-up for a dramatic comedy, featuring the usual privileged Allen characters - a rich businessman and his wife on a Parisian trip along with their spoiled daughter Inez (Canadian actress Rachel McAdams) and her screenwriter fiancé Gil (Owen Wilson).

While Inez can't wait to get back to California, Gil finds that Paris stirs his old ambitions to be a serious writer and live in the City of Light, as his idols Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso did in the 1920s. In a beguiling twist reminiscent of Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and his 1977 short story, The Kugelmass Episode, Gil's fantasy comes true.

Allen and his cast (including Wilson, McAdams, Adrien Brody and Michael Sheen) held a press conference at the film's end, though most of the attention naturally focused on the director.

Despite his nostalgia for old jazz and movies, Allen said, he has no illusions that living in another time would be better.

"Life is a pretty tough proposition, and not much fun, but when you think about going to a dentist and getting no novocaine - I wouldn't like to go back to any time but right now."

He didn't need to do much research on Paris of the 1920s because the artists of the period were his idols growing up, he said.

Allen also expressed his love of French cinema, starting with François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, back through Jean Renoir and René Clair, directors who first gave him the idea that a filmmaker could be an artist, not just a commercial entertainer.

"Not that I call myself an artist," he added. "I'm just a very lucky filmmaker. Everything I needed has come my way. I have some talent, but I don't have the depth, substance or gift to be an artist. Look at Kurosawa, Bunuel and Fellini. Those are artists. It's as clear as a bell I'm not an artist."

Allen admitted he does have a talent for casting: "Hire great people. Let them do what they do, and if they're great take credit for it. I've done it for years and it works like a charm."

In the case of Owen Wilson, he said, he picked an actor as different from himself as possible: laid-back, "West Coast", "someone who likes the beach."

Wilson, who is actually from Texas, smiled at the characterization and commented on Allen's famously hands-off approach to directing:

"He asked me how my flight was and I said, 'Fine'," Wilson recalled. "Then he said, 'That's the last you'll be hearing from me.' "

On casting Rachel McAdams as Wilson's shrewish fiancée, Allen said he picked her because she could behave badly without entirely losing the audience's affection.

Said McAdams: "I was excited when he said to me, 'You won't be playing the object of desire and I hope you're okay with that.' I really enjoyed playing this maliciously direct character."

Other stars in the film include Michael Sheen (who became McAdams's boyfriend during the making of the movie) as a rival for Inez's affections, Adrien Brody as mad genius Salvador Dali, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald and Marion Cotillard as a (fictional) lover of both Picasso and Hemingway.

France's first lady Carla Bruni has a brief, well publicized part in the film as a cool French tour guide. When he described how he cast her, Allen revealed just how highly he is regarded in France.

"We were having breakfast with the Sarkozys," Allen said, "and she walked into the room and she was very beautiful, charming and charismatic. I said, 'Would you like to be in a movie? Just a small part.' She agreed because she said it would be something for her grandchildren to see."

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Midnight in Paris

  • Written and directed by Woody Allen
  • With Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard

Woody Allen's older fans often lament that his movies aren't what they used to be, so it's no surprise he takes aim at the nostalgia business with Midnight in Paris. After a somewhat creaky start (predictable cracks about Tea Party followers and culturally illiterate Californians), Allen's film takes a leap into the magic realism of his eighties films Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo. With a strong cast playing, essentially, caricatures of famous cultural icons of the 1920s, from Cole Porter to Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, the film is a showcase for amusing performances. Occasionally, the plotting feels perfunctory, and Rachel McAdams's character seems cartoonishly shallow, but Owen Wilson brings a refreshingly relaxed rhythm to the standard Allen neurotic hero. Throughout, Paris is gorgeously shot by Stealing Beauty cinematographer Darius Khondji.

Liam Lacey