Paris in the Rain: Photogenie and Allen's 'Midnight in Paris'
The experience of film is often a rivalry between narrative coherence and artistic expression, with both approaches being developed simultaneously throughout early cinema. Crudely simplified to the synaesthesia of Méliès against the documented reality of the Lumière brothers, the idea of cinema’s essential being, its ultimate purpose and potential, remained ambiguous through to after World War I. With the rise of French Impressionism, Epstein posited the idea of photogénie as a rejection of narrative structure for the truly aesthetic, creating what he terms ‘the purest expression of cinema’ (1988, p.315). His theory was concerned with both a way of experiencing cinema and an approach to filmmaking, constructing photogénie as a momentary spectacle with both theoretic and literal qualities.
Stylistically, photogénie distinguishes the film aesthetic from other artistic pursuits; but culturally, it works to establish cinema as a legitimate form of artistic expression exonerated from narrative
As Wall-Romana describes, photogénie is essentially a ‘hyper-aesthetic phenomenon’ (2012, p.53) that explores how film can expose - and in turn enhance - the moral character of a subject and evoke an emotional response. Therefore, where conventional narrative film revels in artifice, simply reproducing reality, photogénie instead works to augment one’s perspective through aestheticism; it seeks a unique language for film as the medium instead revitalises reality (Farmer, 2010). Stylistically, photogénie distinguishes the film aesthetic from other artistic pursuits; but culturally, it works to establish cinema as a legitimate form of artistic expression exonerated from narrative, as well as renouncing the passivity of audiences for a more sensory engagement. But with photogénie being intrinsically linked to this idea of the active viewer, accordingly, what counts as photogénie is highly subjective. If photogénie describes the beautiful, evanescent cinematic moments that transcend the artificiality of narrative, then naturally, these moments are limited to what the viewer considers “photogenic”. But if the constituent ideas of Epstein’s photogénie are all considered in turn, we can perhaps expand this theory to apply to more modern forms of cinema, and elicit what it means to possess the quality of photogénie.
Delluc suggested that the art of cinema is manifested in making an image true; beauty is a result of abandoning strenuous efforts to search for the photogenic, merely celebrating what is (McCreary, 1976). This provides a lens in which we can discover photogénie as a quality in contemporary filmmaking. Woody Allen is one notable director that, arguably, uses aesthetics to undercut the cinematic importance of narrative. Allen does not reject the use of dialogue in film; as Loy notes, his films have historically appealed to the ‘urbane quasi-intellectuals’ (2003, para. 3) whom his characters imitate and mock. However, Allen still demonstrates an overwhelming appreciation for the synesthetic potential of cinema. Midnight in Paris (2011) is rooted in visual romanticism, a lover’s portrait of the city’s poetic and artistic auras. With such passion for natural beauty comes a concomitant unearthing of photogénie.
Farmer renders Epstein’s celebration of montage as an integral quality in achieving photogénie, paying attention to ‘coincidental rhythms’ that enhance the ‘mobile aspect’ of cinema (2010, sec. V). The opening sequence of the film exemplifies this idea, showcasing the visual beauty and energy of Paris. Allen takes us to the tourist attractions as well as the hidden streets, from the soft palette of the rising morning to the cooler vibrancies of the night. One frame almost transcends reality in its exquisiteness: the silhouettes of carnival rides spin against a dusky, pink sky in an explosion of colour and mobility. Allen thus invites us to immerse in the natural rhythms of Parisian beauty, especially as the sequence has been edited to be synchronised with the score. The technique enhances the moral character of the city, positioning Paris to resonate with the audience similar to how it does with the protagonist of the film. In true photogénie style, the magic of visual splendour illustrates a new perception of Paris, in turn revitalising and heightening reality.
Therefore, the opening sequence of Midnight in Paris, much like photogénie, almost foregrounds an exploration of true cinematic potential. The text is adorned with moments that celebrate aesthetics distinct to film, instances that revel in profound mobile aspects. The very soul of Allen’s 1920s Paris can be attributed to this mobility, both with regards to camera manipulation and subject movement. As Gil (Owen Wilson) encounters the 1920s for the first time, the camera slowly pans around the party as if to mimic a bewildered mind trying to process its surroundings. The technique establishes spacial perspective in a way unique to cinema, cultivating the idea of photogénie as bound to mobility. Similarly, the following sequence at the flapper bar is an indulgence in warm, smoky palettes, as one flapper in pure white dances to the diegetic music. The camera holds its gaze, showcasing the dancer’s movement as a signifier of the past and celebrating such liveliness. This act in itself posits a moment that transcends any narrative relevance, almost manipulating the concept of temporal perspective by travelling back to the era. Thus, Epstein’s idea that the truly cinematic takes into account time and space (Epstein, 1988) is illustrated as emblematic of filmic potential.
If the artist’s job is to “find an antidote for the emptiness of existence”, perhaps the purpose photogénie expands beyond signifying the truly cinematic.
Furthering the function of mobility in film language, Epstein names the close-up as the ‘soul of the cinema’, a ‘maximum expression’ of movement in the context of photogénie (1977, p.9-10). In Midnight in Paris, the two lovers dance slowly at the turn of the century, framed by a close-up. We see the sparkle in Adriana’s (Marion Cotillard) eye as she looks at Gil, and the soft smile of affection on his lips as he looks at her. The close-up elicits an incomparable intimacy, a zenith of soulful emotion that heightens reality. Whilst the surroundings are slightly fantastical, the love depicted is real; as conventional of photogénie, Allen inherently enhances the moral character of passion and the perception of adoration we hold in reality.
If the artist’s job is to “find an antidote for the emptiness of existence” (Midnight in Paris, 2011), perhaps the purpose photogénie expands beyond signifying the truly cinematic. That which is photogenic enhances reality, showcasing the visual splendour of the ineffable. The potential of cinema should, therefore, not only be consecrated by humanity but rendered as integral to its existence. Allen’s film thus speaks to what cinema is by drawing parallels with the aesthetic and cultural practices of photogénie. If Epstein’s theory is to posit cinema as ‘poetry’s most powerful medium’ (1988, p.318), then Midnight in Paris epitomizes how the lyrical rhythms of love and artistry can be visualised.
FUN FILM FACT
Rachel McAdams has been the partner of a time-traveller in four movies, Midnight in Paris being the third. Unfortunately, the poor girl has never been able to time-travel herself as a charcacter or in real life.
Epstein, J 1977, 'Magnification and Other Writings', October, Volume 3, pp. 9 - 25.
Epstein, J 1988 ‘On Certain Characteristics of Photogenie’ in R Abel (ed.), French Film Theory and Criticism 1907 – 1939, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, pp. 314-318.
Farmer, R 2010, Jean Epstein, Senses of Cinema, viewed 28 March 2020, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/great-directors/jean-epstein/>
Loy, V 2003, Woody Allen, Senses of Cinema, viewed April 4 2020, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/allen/>
McCreary, E. C 1976, 'Louis Delluc, Film Theorist, Critic, and Prophet', Cinema Journal, Volume 16, pp. 14 – 35
Midnight in Paris 2011, Netflix, Sony Pictures Classics, New York, NY, directed by Woody Allen.
Wall-Romana, C 2012, 'Epstein's Photogenie as Corporeal Vision: Inner Sensation, Queer Embodiment, and Ethics' in S Keller and J.N. Paul (eds.) Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, Amsterdam University Press, Netherlands, pp. 51 - 71.