Woody Allen: He'll always have Paris

Few film directors have experienced such critical highs and lows. But it's taken a sojourn in Europe for this quintessential New Yorker to rediscover the magic that marks his greatest work

In the unlikely event that Woody Allen sprang from his bed yesterday morning to read the British reviews of his new film, Midnight in Paris, he might have blinked.

"Woody's timely return to form" was the headline in The Independent, where Anthony Quinn called it "a surprising event, the surprise being that [Allen]'s still capable of grace, lightness and wit".

"Every bit as good as Manhattan and Annie Hall," shouted the Daily Mail, whose critic Chris Tookey breathed, "It has a magic about it, a warmth and charm and ... a yearning for romance and values beyond the mercenary." "One of the most charming, witty and heartwarming films of his career," cried Digital Spy, the online movie scrutineer.

You can almost see the relief rising from the critics like vapour. In the past decade, they've grown weary of shaking their heads at the dross released by their former hero: The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending (in which Allen played a nervous film director who goes psychosomatically blind – a comic premise about as comic as a burning orphanage), Anything Else, Melinda and Melinda, Match Point, Scoop (so dire it was, like Hollywood Ending, never released in the UK), Cassandra's Dream... But every time they've pronounced his career officially dead, Allen has produced some galvanic spasm of life, and made them hope again for his "return to form".

Well, look what just happened. Midnight in Paris, which opened the Cannes Film Festival in May, not only won raves from the world's press, but it's also taken over $100m worldwide, making it Allen's most financial successful film ever. At the age of 75 (76 in December), Woody Allen, the most prolific, most loved and abused, most haphazard, most enragingly hit-and-miss American director alive, is back in the game.

He's always been an oddball in the US movie industry. His films, even the flops, have remained arty, literate and thoughtful while Hollywood has become more crass, crude and formulaic. He has remained an independent American director when the concept has all but ceased to exist. Since Take the Money and Run in 1969, he's always had final cut. Allen is a true auteur, in the tradition of the directors he most admires: Bergman, Truffaut, Antonioni. And while he reveres European cinema, he admires European financial pragmatism too.

When, in 2005, the US studios began to ask if they might see his scripts or know whom he was casting, Allen's reaction was instantaneous. "I wasn't used to working that way, so I went to Europe," he later recalled. "There's no studio system, so they don't care about any of that stuff. They're bankers. And they're happy to be bankers. They put up the money, you give them the film and that's what they care about."

The creative results of Allen's self-exile to London, Paris, Barcelona and Rome in the mid-late 2000s were patchy – Match Point made $23m worldwide, Cassandra's Dream less than $1m – but he clearly felt the move was therapeutic. Transplanting himself from his native Manhattan into the ancient cultures of Western Europe not only invigorated his spirit. It was a physical manifestation of a theme that runs through several of his works: the migration of a restless soul into another era, a new context, a work of art, a different body.

In Play It Again Sam, his second Broadway play, the hero is a neurotic dreamer, hopeless with women, who summons the manly Humphrey Bogart to his aid. In his story "My Apology", Allen finds himself in the doomed sandals of Socrates just before his encounter with the hemlock. In another story, "The Kugelmass Episode", a university professor is empowered to enter the pages of Madame Bovary and conduct an affair with Flaubert's heroine.

In The Purple Rose of Cairo, set in the Depression, Mia Farrow escapes from poverty, unemployment and her husband's violent ways by watching the titular movie again and again, until its dashing hero (Jeff Daniels) steps from the screen to whisk her away. In the new film, a Californian novelist visiting Paris with his philistine wife is whisked back into the bohemian 1920s when the French capital was overrun by expatriate American writers and European artists: he meets Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Dali, Gertrude Stein and Picasso.

His most sustained piece of transference was Zelig (1983) a mockumentary about an insecure man who makes himself fit into any society. He pops up in newsreel footage, behind Hitler at a Nazi rally, in a speakeasy with Capone, on a baseball field behind Babe Ruth... Allen may have been satirising the human desire to be part of history, of the in-crowd. But you suspect he may be scratching his own itch to be serious, to be considered worthy to stand beside the big guys. "I've made perfectly decent films," he said once, "but not 8 , not The Seventh Seal, The 400 Blows or L'Avventura – ones that to me really proclaim cinema as art, on the highest level. If I was the teacher, I'd give myself a B."

Born Allen Stewart Konigsberg in Brooklyn, he lived in Manhattan's Lower East Side. His father was an engraver and his mother a delicatessen bookkeeper. He learned independence early: his parents didn't get on, and in his high school years he lived in an apartment on Avenue K, where he listened to jazz, perfected magic tricks and, at 15, wrote jokes for newspaper columnists. He changed his name to "Heywood Allen". By 17, he was earning more than his parents' joint income.

"I never had a teacher who made the least impression on me," he said once, "and if you ask who are my heroes, the answer is simple and truthful: George S Kaufman and the Marx Brothers." His facility with humour brought early rewards: writing for Ed Sullivan, Sid Caesar, Candid Camera and The New Yorker paid him $1,500 a week, a considerable wedge in the mid-1950s. As a stand-up comic he was something new: not a suave gagmeister like Bob Hope or Milton Berle, but a stammering, uncertain intellectual babbling about schoolday failures ("I was caught cheating in the metaphysics exam – I looked in to the soul of the boy next to me") and the neurosis of being a New York Jew.

The babbling-nebbish persona served him well through his early films, but a contrapuntal tone of seriousness and emotional need was sounded by the time of his masterpiece Annie Hall. That was perhaps the first-ever romcom in which the only obstacle to the central couple's happiness isn't a fuming parent, a rival, or an illness, but the neurotic preoccupations of the hero. It was also the first sighting of a cosmic despair – often played for laughs – which is as close as Woody Allen has come to dealing with the big serious issues of his French, Italian and Scandinavian masters.

No one talks about the human predicament as passionately as Woody Allen – and nobody grafts away, film after film, at showing the things we do to get us through the entropic night. Essentially Allen is a school-of-Beckett tragedian instinctively drawn to subvert his own seriousness.

Though he always came across in his films as an unlikely ladies' man, his career has been punctuated by romantic scandal. His courting of 17-year-old Stacey Nelkin when he was 44 (a romance mirrored in the film Manhattan) raised eyebrows. As did his decision – after a 12-year relationship with the actress Mia Farrow – to take up with and then marry her adopted daughter with André Previn, Soon-Yi Previn. In June this year, Woody Allen dismissed the brouhaha, saying: "What was the scandal? I fell in love with this girl, married her. We have been married for almost 15 years now."

He is very much not a man of his time. He doesn't own a computer or word processor and has no interest in technology. Awards do not impress him (winning the Oscar for Annie Hall, he said, "didn't mean anything to me") and he has attended only one Oscars ceremony, in 2002. He says he has never done anything to attract an audience and never will. His life, in short, has been spent writing gags and scripts and screenplays to amuse himself and his friends. "I've always been able to work freely, to play my clarinet and enjoy women and sport – although I am always aware of the fact that I am operating within a nightmarish context that life itself is a cruel, meaningless, terrible kind of thing."

With his long-deferred "return to form" a bankable $100m fact, what will he do now? Probably go back to Manhattan, scene of his best movies. "I would love to make a film in New York," he said this week. "It's a fabulous city to work in, because there are a million things to do here and a million stories to tell. There's also the advantage of being in your own home. I like having my own bed, shower, house and more of my surrounding pharmaceuticals."

After a decade of restless travelling and falling in love with other cities, this unlikely Odysseus can return in triumph to his first love, his Penelope, his Ithaca.

A Life In Brief

Born: Allen Stewart Konigsberg, 1 December 1935, Brooklyn, New York.

Family: Son of Martin, a jewellery engraver, and Nettie, a bookkeeper. Married to Harlene Rosen 1954-59 and Louise Lasser 1966-69. In 1997 he married Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Allen's long-time partner, Mia Farrow. He has one child with Farrow and two adopted children with Previn.

Education: Went to Hebrew school, Public School 99 and Midwood High School. Studied film at New York University.

Career: Started as a comedy writer for television. His first scripted film was What's New Pussycat? (1965) and his first as a director was What's Up, Tiger-Lily? (1966). Has directed, written and starred in more than 50 films such as Annie Hall, Manhattan and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Winner of three Oscars.

He says: "I've been telling people for my entire life that there's not a huge similarity between me on screen and me in real life, but for some reason they don't want to know that."

They say: "He's a legend." Owen Wilson, star of Midnight in Paris.

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