Nostalgia for idealized visions of the past is pretty much the motivating ethos of this blog, devoted to Scientific Romances, adventure stories, history, and aesthetics of the Victorian and Edwardian Periods. In what is widely considered one of his best films in years (if not decades), Woody Allen gives his own take on nostalgia in Midnight in Paris. With Owen Wilson in the lead role that once would have been his own, Allen explores both the motivations and the complications of too readily losing oneself in the past with sensitivity and gentle humour. In a film that seems like it is directed almost exactly at me, I don't come out feeling hectored or made fun of. Instead, it is a film that I can watch again and again.
Trailer for Midnight in Paris.
Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter unfulfilled with the drivel he is forced to write for modern audiences. He longs to be a real author of authentic literature, like his idols of the "Lost Generation." The so-called Lost Generation were those youth who came of age during the First World War. Some were young enough to have served, others narrowly escaped that horror, but all shared the challenge of having to find themselves and their life's meaning in a world where the notion of inevitable upward progress had died in the trenches. Paris was a hotbed of activity for artists of the Lost Generation, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, William Faulker, T.S. Eliot, and Pablo Picasso, many under the watchful eye of Gertrude Stein. Assuming that Gil is the same age or younger than Owen Wilson, that would place him in Generation X, another "lost generation" between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials currently engaged in mutual recriminations. Perhaps that is part of why the Lost Generation resonates so well with Gil. Pursuing his nostalgic ambitions, Gil finds himself in Paris on a vacation with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her conservative parents who disdain the French (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy).
Where Gil's vision of Paris is the sultry music of 1920's cabarets and walking in the rain, Inez's mostly has to do with shopping. Inured to her fiancee's wistful dreams, she is very forthright in how he should give up the silly dream of being a poor author in Paris and accept his role as an affluent Hollywood screenwriter. Her dream is to live a lavish but shallow existence in Malibu. While in Paris, the pair meet up with one of her former professors (Michael Sheen) and his wife (Nina Arianda)... A pretentious couple whose presumptive authority on the arts is only matched by their inability to really appreciate it on a visceral, emotional, human level. Art, for them, is not something to be felt or experienced. It is something to be "discoursed" for social status among fellow pseudo-intellectuals. He reaches peak pedantry when attempting to debate a tourguide at the Rodin museum on the particulars of Rodin's life. Gil, naturally, finds all this insufferable, being more deeply engaged in with a Cole Porter 45 found at a flea market stall than in a professor's rambling monologue of questionable accuracy.
After Inez decides to go off and the spend the evening with the professor and his wife, a drunk Gil stumbles around Paris' back streets. At the stroke of midnight, a vintage 1920's Peugeot automobile pulls up beside him. Its Flapper passengers beckon him in, and Gil is transported away to the Twilight Zone.
Midnight in Paris itself offers a nostalgic, idealized look back at the Lost Generation as archetypes rather than well-fleshed out characters in their own right. Gil becomes a spectator to the broken relationship between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, played admirably by Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill. Corey Stoll plays Ernest Hemingway with intensity (and most of the best lines in the film). Adrian Brody has a memorable cameo as Salvador Dali, in a comic scene where he, Man Ray (Tom Cordier) and Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) are totally unfazed by Gil's explanation of his situation because they are Surrealists. As icons more than characters, each delivers a wonderful performance.
The situation Gil finds himself in, which needs explanation, is that through successive visitations into the past - at the expense of nurturing his unfulfilling present-day relationships - he falls in love with the charming Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the (fictional) muse of the Lost Generation who was painted by Picasso and went off to Africa with Hemingway. She is also a woman out of time, in her own way. Like Gil she also longs for another time... Not the vacuity of the 1920's, but the vibrancy of Paris in the Belle Époque. Maxim's and the Moulin Rouge are where she really wants to be, rubbing elbows with Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, and Degas.
Allen doesn't vilify or mock nostalgia. That is left to the pedantic pseudo-intellectual. Nor does he really offer any rule or prescription for life's uncertainties, except to embrace them through courage and the pursuit of our passions. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the beautiful things of the past so long as they inform rather than replace the present, making our lives better in the here and now rather than make the here and now even more unsatisfying. As Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) says in the film: "We all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist's job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence."
Eventually, in the course of their time-twisting shenanigans, a horse-drawn carriage swings by at the stroke of midnight to convey Gil and Adriana to the 1890's. After meeting Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin and Degas pop in and discuss their conversation on what time they think was the "golden age." After some thought, they agree that it was the Renaissance. Woody Allen gives his characters everything anyone who has held out a torch of nostalgia could want: not only the ability to go into the past, but to do so under the social and economic conditions that are most amenable, with nobody wondering at your strange clothes or manners or lack of money, and everyone speaking modern English. After all, nobody would want to go back to the Victorian Era to live in a slum. Gil gets to go back to the Twenties and actually meet his idols, Adriana gets to go back to the Fin de siècle and meet hers. But they are also confronted with the irony that every age is nostalgic for another. In every time, there is an envy for an imagined golden age of the past. So will Adriana stay in her golden age? Will Gil give up his golden age to be with her, or will he choose to remain in the Twenties? Or will he yet return to his own time to live his own life there? Could she be content in the Twenties with him? Or can she take a truly brave step into an unknown future?
Paris is a supremely appropriate setting for a film raising the question of our relationship with the past, because Paris is a city where the past carries an almost palpable weight. This may be the mere whimsy of a Canadian whose home town is barely over 100 years old (for a Parisian it might just be "Saturday"), but the sense of history in Paris is as heavy as the stones which built the great city. The steps of Notre-Dame de Paris are worn away with centuries. You can touch by hand the statues carved by great masters. Standing in Place de la Concorde, one can almost hear the guillotine and see the blood seep into the ground. More than anywhere, Paris lives and breathes its past.
This fact benefited the production of Midnight in Paris as easily as it did the narrative.
It doesn't take much to restore a Paris streetscape or a restaurant to its 1920's appearance when it was already half a century old by the 1920's. In some rare cases, Paris' overabundance of museums helped to recreate what had been lost. Another memorable scene at a carnival was shot at the Musée des Arts Forains in the old winemakers district of Bercy. Gil is having the time of his life dancing up to the hottest Twenties tunes when he meets up with Adriana, who explicates on the beauty of a pedal-powered carousel from the 19th century.
Like so many films set in Paris, Midnight in Paris cannot but be an ode to the city itself. In addition to overt monologues in worship of Paris ("You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can't. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists..." "That Paris exists and anyone could choose to live anywhere else in the world will always be a mystery to me." "This is unbelievable! Look at this! There's no city like this in the world. There never was.") Allen takes care to showcase the best of the city in loving montages and scenic shots. It resonates with anyone who has been there and fallen in love with the city, or anyone who loves to hear people talk about the passions that enflame them.