Woody Allen puts Cannes in a cinematic swoon with ‘Midnight in Paris’

The cinematic planets aligned perfectly for the Cannes Film Festival, which opened Wednesday with the premiere of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” a frothy air kiss to the culture that has long venerated the 75-year-old director.

What better way to kick off the 64th edition of Cannes than with a film that — in addition to celebrating Paris in the ’20s, as well as la belle epoque — finds Allen in his most playful, meltingly romantic mood in years?

From its first moments, “Midnight in Paris” announces that rapturous return to form, with a montage of picturesque Paris sites set to a blast of beguiling jazz music. Any resemblance to “Manhattan” and its similarly ecstatic preamble is definitely intended. “I learned about Paris the same way all Americans do, from the movies,” Allen explained at a news conference immediately after a warmly received press screening.

Dressed festival-casual in khakis and a blue chambray shirt, an unsmiling Allen studiously avoided making eye contact with reporters, choosing instead to look into the middle distance while he carefully answered questions with his trademark Brooklyn accent. “I didn’t go to Paris until I was a grown-up, in 1965, and when I went to Paris it was the Paris that I knew only from American movies.” He noted that the New York he depicted in “Manhattan” is “the Manhattan that I don’t see around me, but the one that I recognized from movies,” and explained that the Paris of “Midnight in Paris” is similarly idealized. “I wanted to show the city emotionally, the way I felt about it,” he said. “Not realistically, but subjectively.”

One of the charms of “Midnight in Paris” is just how unrealistic it is. The film, set in the present day, follows an American author as he travels back in time to the heyday of expatriate writers and artists such as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein (Corey Stoll of “Law & Order: L.A.” makes a particularly bold impression as Ernest Hemingway).

In addition to handling the time-travel elements with ease, Allen made the radically counterintuitive decision to cast Owen Wilson as his alter ego in the film. (Wilson appeared at the festival, along with Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen and Adrien Brody.) With his beach-boy hair and laid-back delivery, Wilson successfully dispels the Allen-esque mannerisms and verbal tics that have made previous channelings of the director so distracting (see Larry David in the regrettable “Whatever Works”).

For those keeping score at home, McAdams and Sheen made their official debut on the red carpet, although sadly French first lady Carla Bruni — who delivers a winning cameo as a tour guide — sent her regrets.

As a light, literally enchanted fable, “Midnight in Paris” marks a welcome high point in Allen’s prolific but uneven movies to date, which have either borne the signs of glib but slight left-handed projects (“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”) to the well crafted but cold (“Match Point”). What’s more, the warmth and gliding, giddy romance of the film couldn’t find a better launching pad than Cannes, which for more than six decades has served as a mecca for the very auteurs Allen himself idolized as a young filmmaker.

Noting that the films of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Renoir and Rene Clair as early influences for him and his peers, he told the assembled international reporters and photographers that in America, filmmaking “is a moneymaking industry. In France, you can find great respect for cinema as art, and this was very new to us, because we wanted to be artists in cinema and not commercial filmmakers.”

Meanwhile, a few floors below where Allen was speaking, in the festival’s Grand Palais, sales agents were busily pushing the very commercial movies that actors appear in so that one day they can afford to make a Woody Allen movie. (“Jeremy Renner is ‘Ingenious,’ ” insisted one rep.)

Asked a few moments later whether he considered himself an artist, Allen replied, “I have never considered myself as an artist. I have aspired to be one, but I have never felt that I have the depth, substance or the gifts to be an artist. I do think I have some talent, yes; but I don’t think it goes as far as being an artist, because if you think Kurosawa is an artist and Bergman is an artist, and Bunuel and Fellini, then it is as clear as a bell that I am not an artist.”

Certainly, Allen’s legions of French fans would beg to differ with his self-assessment. And certainly they would raise an eyebrow at the fact that he has yet to be given the highest American artistic accolade, the Kennedy Center Honors, a curious omission given his prodigious output and his role in bringing such vivid portraits of the nation’s culture to audiences around the world. If his own country doesn’t fully appreciate him, perhaps he’s getting the hint: The very day “Midnight in Paris” made its red-carpet debut here, the trade magazine Variety announced that Allen’s next picture, “Bop Decameron,” starring Penelope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg and Roberto Benigni, will start shooting this summer in Rome.

Midnight in Paris

opens in Washington on May 27. The Cannes Film Festival continues through May 22.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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