Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, follows the adventures of a successful Hollywood screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson), who longs to publish a novel, or anything more serious than the screenplays that have made him rich and famous. Gil is the latest version of the typical “Woody character,” whom Richard A. Blake, S.J., America’s longtime film critic, described in his book Woody Allen: Profane and Sacred as one who “stutters and stumbles...through life, insecure, threatened, and desperately unhappy.”
Not quite desperate, but getting there, Gil and his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), have come to Paris to accompany her parents on their business trip. As early as the couple’s first day of sightseeing, Gil waxes nostalgic about the Paris of the 1920s, when “real writers,” like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and other American expatriates, mingled with the likes of Freud, Picasso and Dalí. By a horrible coincidence, they meet an old flame of Inez’s, Paul (Michael Sheen), who adds to Gil’s misery with his pedantic observations on French art and architectural sites. By the end of the first day, Gil breaks away from the group and wanders aimlessly through the streets at night.
As he sits on the steps of a church, the steeple bell strikes midnight and a taxi pulls up. Gil is lured into the car and taken to a party where Cole Porter is playing the piano, and the first guests he meets are F. Scott himself and Zelda. The Fitzgeralds persuade him to join them and their pal Ernest Hemingway for late-night revelry at a café where Josephine Baker is dancing; and the group ends the evening at Gertrude Stein’s salon, where she passes the time arguing with Picasso. Astounded (naturally), Gil nonetheless finds a way to return every night to continue the party and, as a bonus, to enjoy the company of Picasso’s current mistress, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a free-spirited fashion designer who came to Paris to work with Coco Chanel.
Allen has been reported to have called this film his “love song to Paris.” And he knows how to do love songs. Many moviegoers can happily recall his ongoing love affair with New York. Beginning with “Take the Money and Run” in 1969, on through the ’70s and ’80s with “Annie Hall,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misde-meanors” and “Broadway Danny Rose,” and as recently as “Anything Else” in 2003, Allen’s images, characters and plotlines expertly captured the city’s unique combination of goofy energy, intellectual vitality and romantic possibilities. His romance with Gotham peaked in the opening scenes of “Manhattan” (1979), which offered a montage of New York’s loveliest landmarks, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic’s hyper-lush rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
In recent years, though, Allen has occasionally traded New York for London, the setting for “Match Point” and “Scoop,” and for Spain in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” investing both locales with a similar mix of frantic energy, erotic conflicts and romantic elegance. Now he enters Paris. But this is not his first visit to the City of Light. In 1996 his romantic farce “Everyone Says I Love You” spent a little time in Venice but most of its time in the French capital.
“Midnight in Paris” begins as “Manhattan” does, with a collage of the famous sights of the city. The sequence, however, is less dewy-eyed. Instead of the Gershwin rhapsody, the soundtrack is a brassy jazz tune; instead of the moody chiaroscuro, the images resemble touristy snapshots. The pedestrian daylight shots of the Arc de Triomphe, the Paris Opera, Notre Dame Cathedral and Montmartre gradually shift, however, into evening scenes along the Seine and, finally, into a nighttime portrait of the brilliantly illuminated Eiffel Tower, a preview of the allure that the Paris nights will hold for Gil.
Gil’s novel-in-progress focuses on the owner of a “nostalgia shop.” Inez and her friends accuse Gil of engaging in nostalgia simply as “an escape from the pain of the present” and describe his problem as “Golden Age thinking.” But his nightly visits to the “moveable feast” of 1920s Paris show why a writer might prefer to have lived in that place and time. The casual name-dropping—Modigliani, Jean Cocteau, Braque, Archibald MacLeish, Djuna Barnes—provokes the same zeitgeist chuckles that many of Allen’s New Yorker magazine pieces have earned.
But the cinematic appearance of some of the literary and artistic greats is even more delightful. Hemingway (Corey Stoll), with his unsmiling and aggressive stare, converses exactly as he writes, in sharp simple or compound sentences that refer frequently to “bravery,” “death” and “grace under pressure.” In addition, he regularly invites people to a round of boxing. Kathy Bates reincarnates Gertrude Stein, delivering her critical opinions while sitting beneath Picasso’s portrait of her. Later on, Adrien Brody is even more outlandish as a hyper-enthusiastic Salvador Dalí. The lovely Alison Pill exhibits all of Zelda Fitzgerald’s Southern charm as well as her incipient madness. Add to this the brief appearances of Luis Buñuel, Man Ray and, for a few seconds, T. S. Eliot; and one can sympathize with Gil’s preference for this era over his current life with a bland fiancée and her hostile parents.
The contrast is so strong that one might wonder how Gil ever ended up engaged to Inez. She has no appreciation of his literary ambitions, contradicts and criticizes him at every turn and is happy to spend time shopping and sightseeing with her parents or dancing (and doing other activities) with her old flame. Gil admits to an occasional panic attack at the thought of their engagement and confesses to Adriana that he and Inez have a “disconnect with the big things” in life. Meanwhile, Allen, framing Cotillard in the golden glow of bistro lighting or the violet hue of a Parisian evening, offers Gil a sensuous alternative. Adriana’s only failing is that she, an inhabitant of the Paris of the Lost Generation, finds her own situation “prosaic and vulgar” and wishes that she had lived in the real “golden age” of Paris, the Belle époque of the 1890s.
Lest time-travel strike one as too fantastical for Woody Allen, one need only recall those of his other films that also played with such flights of fancy. As far back as 1972, one of the cleverest segments of “Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)” was set in medieval times, with Allen as the court jester-cum-stand-up comic. That same year, in “Play It Again, Sam,” a 1940s-era Humphrey Bogart coached Allen’s character on the best (and politically incorrect) ways to “treat a dame.” In “Sleeper” (1973) Allen’s cryogenically preserved main character traveled 200 years into the future. Two years later, “Love and Death” was set in czarist Russia but loaded with anachronistic one-liners. “Zelig” (1983) placed its protagonist in various historical moments, appearing in newsreels with Woodrow Wilson, Babe Ruth, Pope Pius XI, Hitler and at a garden party hosted by F. Scott Fitzgerald. “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985) explored the ultimate moviegoer fantasy, as a Hollywood leading man stepped out of the film and into the real Depression-era life of his lovelorn fan, eventually being forced to decide whether to stay in her world or return to his filmic existence. Allen’s “nostalgia” films usually included a satirical view of the contemporary world.
“Midnight in Paris,” however, offers a significant twist on the formula. At the film’s conclusion, Gil admits that his nostalgic imagination may indeed serve as a “denial of the painful present.” But as he learns from Adriana’s dissatisfaction with her present age and from his encounters with the artists of the Belle époque who, in turn, wish they had lived in the Renaissance, many people—especially artists—find the present, as Gil phrases it, “a little unsatisfying.” But, he argues, life is “always unsatisfying.”
This is a far cry from many of Allen’s earlier films that suggested a preference for art over life: the true meaning of life found only in watching Marx Brothers films at the end of “Hannah and Her Sisters,” or in writing a play about romance rather than wallowing in his personal romantic failures in “Annie Hall,” or in accepting that the “perfect ending” is found only in movies, not in real life, as he philosophizes at the end of “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
To call life “unsatisfying” seems far more positive than calling it absurd and meaningless. Woody Allen seems almost in danger of enjoying life—who knew?—but maybe only if he’s living in Paris.