The opening shots of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris echo his famous intro to Manhattan. Shot after glossy shot of Paris pass before us in a sequence so exultant that by the time it’s over you’re ready to leave the theatre and catch the first flight to France. Allen has always been something of a romantic (right alongside his rampant pessimism), so we’re in familiar territory. But as the film progresses, it begins to feel more and more strange. You see, Midnight in Paris is a lighthearted critique of romantic notions, specifically nostalgia. The past, in Allen’s film, is a place that exists only in the mind, and its glories are a mirage. But Paris? Paris is always beautiful, right?
Well, yes. But Gil (played as the Woody Allen surrogate with breathless ease by Owen Wilson) longs for a Paris of a different time. Gil is a self-professed hack Hollywood screenwriter who is also aspiring to be a serious novelist (a la Hemingway or Fitzgerald). He’s come to Paris on a vacation with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), to visit with her parents and maybe get some headway on his new novel. He loves Paris. He loves to just walk around the city and take in its beauty, especially in the rain. His fiancée also likes to look at Paris, but only if it comes with a soundtrack provided by their “pedantic” friend, Paul, who gushes on and on about the profundity in Monet’s brushstrokes. Gil, though he’s too nice to say it outright, is tired of seeing Paris this way. To over-intellectualize Paris is to strip it of its mystique. Gil isn’t very enchanted with his vacation until he slips out on his own to see Paris at night.
It’s here, on Gil’s night walks that Allen pulls out a trick worthy of The Purple Rose of Cairo. In that, his greatest movie, Allen has a movie character step out of the screen and into the real world to start up a romance with a real woman; in Midnight in Paris the real person, Gil, steps into the fantasy world – Paris, 1920s. And Gill doesn’t just land anywhere in Paris; he manages to hook up with his idols Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he gets his book critiqued by Gertrude Stein, has a fling one of Picasso’s lovers, and meets up with the most famous surrealists (Dali, Man Ray, Luis Bunuel) of the day. In short, this is the 1920s Paris that Gil daydreams about, the “moveable feast” that Hemingway spoke of; not the 1920s Paris that the average person lived through.
When Gertrud Stein offers to read his novel for him, Gil rushes back to his hotel only to find that he’s back in 2010. He’s been so enthralled with the past that he’s dumbfounded by the sight of a modern Laundromat. He also finds himself at a loss when trying to explain his evening adventures to his fiancée, who believes that the only logical explanation for his stories is that Gil has a brain tumor. Inez is shrewd. She admires the fact that Gil wants to aim for literary respect, but she likes the money that Hollywood screenwriting brings, and she makes this preference known in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways. Gil, meanwhile, imagines that he might be able to find his literary voice if only he could stay in the Paris of the 20s. He is convinced that anytime but 2010 will do and anywhere but his current home in Malibu would be preferable. The grass, of course, is always greener.
Midnight in Paris is the most enjoyable picture that Woody Allen has made since 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown. It’s smart, surprisingly funny, and it moves along at a nice breezy pace. After a decade of churning out nearly unwatchable movies, Allen has finally found his best assets again – fantasy, dime store philosophy, and a prankster’s anti-intellectualism. This feels like a movie he might have released at the height of his creative powers in the 80s. And he’s helped by a wonderful cast. Like Allen himself, I had doubts about Owen Wilson as the Allen stand-in, but it works because Wilson is able to distance himself from some of Allen’s most idiosyncratic tics. He delivers his lines at his own lackadaisical pace, which frees the character up. He’s not a true blue neurotic or depressive, either, like so many Woody protagonists have been in the past; Wilson play Gil as a regular guy with big aspirations and a relatively sunny outlook on life. Quite frankly, it’s refreshing.
Despite the return to form, Midnight in Paris is a film in direct conflict with itself. As Gil continues to return to his nocturnal Paris, he also begins to fall in love with a Parisian fashion designer, Adriana (played by the lovely Marion Cotillard), who has just ended an affair with Pablo Picasso. She begins to fall for Gil, but she is dissatisfied with the 1920s; she’d rather be in Paris during the Belle Époque (c. 1900), hanging out with Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge. Gil and Adriana manage to find a wormhole that leads back to the Belle Époque (Allen thankfully never bothers give us an expository explanation for this phenomenon) and there in the Moulin Rouge Gil realizes that his dissatisfaction with 2010 is the same dissatisfaction that everyone from every age must feel (Lutrec and Matisse wish they were living during the Renaissance). We always imagine a golden age – any age other than our own – when everything was better. Adriana decides that she’s going to stay in the Bell Époque. Gil figures it’s high time he got comfortable with 2010, ditch his fiancée, and embrace his dream of living in Paris.
Within the enclosed structures of the film there are no real problems with the didactic line of reasoning that Allen presents us. Nostalgia, especially for a time and place that one has never experienced, is a dangerous thing. It can lead us to live in a world of crippling fantasy and pessimism towards the current age. But if we back away from the movie to look at Allen’s other films and his personal predilections, we see that something is slightly amiss in Midnight in Paris.
Back in 2005, with Match Point, Allen left his beloved New York City behind, trading it in for the exoticism of Europe. He’s made movies in London and Barcelona, and Rome is up next. We can only speculate on his reasons for straying from the Big Apple, but I’ll offer guess here: Allen had grown tired of the fact that New York City was in constant flux, moving further and further away from the New York that he grew up with; as evidenced by Anything Else and Whatever Works, the city no longer inspired him. He went off to Europe as a way to cope with the fact that New York City had moved into the 21st Century. No longer able to romanticize America’s metropolis, Allen has given his love to new cities; cities that, like New York, have changed greatly over the past 60 years. But they are in Europe and they are old.
It is perhaps Allen’s greatest weakness as a filmmaker that he is unable to turn his critiques on himself. Think back on Radio Days, one of Allen’s warmest and funniest films: through a series of vignettes, it looked back on New York in the 1940s as though the place and time had been heaven itself on Earth. Radio Days was, in short, a nostalgia piece. New York was his city and the 1940s were his youth. Why not turn the critique of nostalgia on his own city? It’s so easy cast a critical eye on nostalgia for a past era that you’ve never been a part of and then glorify the present state of a city you do not live in. Paris today is still beautiful, but it is also full of crime and all the other horrors that come with urban life. Does Allen realize this? I’m sure he does, but he’s not willing to let on. Allen looks at Paris lovingly, though, because, like the 1920s, he knows nothing about living there. Midnight in Paris might have been a more honest film if it had been called Midnight in New York.