Woody Allen has almost certainly never seen '90s sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart, in which a married man travels back in time to have an affair in the past, but his latest film Midnight in Paris bears more than a passing resemblance to the Nicholas Lyndhurst TV series. Allen's comedy, which opens the Cannes Film Festival tonight, is his most surreal and narratively ambitious movies in years. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter vacationing with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents in France. He's successful but unsatisfied and yearning to pen that Great American Novel. Lacking inspiration, he ventures out into the streets of Paris and, as the clock strikes midnight, slips back in time to the 1920s to experience Paris's 'Golden Age'.
As the dual-timeline unfolds, Gil's relationship with Inez begins to unravel in the present (a spectacularly smug Michael Sheen emerges as a romantic rival), and he becomes more attached to the past. Allen's mad flights of fancy pave the way for appearances from literary giants such as Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddlestone), Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), while the alluring Adriana (Marion Cotillard) sends Gil's heart racing. Allen uses collective notions of the past as a key theme to build his story around. The protagonist of Gil's novel owns a nostalgia store, which leads Sheen's Paul to observe that it's a method of escape for those unhappy in the now. It's something that even dawns on Adriana, who believes the grass to be greener in turn-of-the-20th-century-Paris.
Perhaps the film is also Allen being playful with his audience and critics? The auteur is more than 30 years removed from his masterpiece Annie Hall, something that he's probably sick of being reminded of. That late-'70s heyday is looked back on with rose-tinted nostalgia, but maybe he just wants to forget about it and move on. Midnight in Paris is a welcome addition to the Allen oeuvre, an affectionate love letter to France that'll leave you grinning at its silliness and sweetness from ear to ear.