Returning from a trip to Paris sometime in the mid-20th century, a federal judge named Frank A. Picard once told a friend named Charley Manos, “It was a wonderful trip. Paris is a grand place. But I wish I had made the trip 20 years ago.”
“You mean, when Paris was Paris?” Manos asked.
“No,” Picard replied, perhaps wistfully. “I mean when Picard was Picard.”
When Paris was Paris. When Picard was Picard. Ah, the old days. It seems the present is always overshadowed by a remembrance of lost or faded glory, some golden age before which present realities are poor and unsatisfactory substitutes.
Woody Allen fans know it well. Sure, they’ll admit, Allen cranks out a lot of unmemorable and even poor work nowadays — ah, but they remember when Allen was Allen. Every once in a while, perhaps, he comes out with a film that shows them he remembers, too.
Midnight in Paris is such a film. It’s a nostalgic film about nostalgia — nostalgia for when Paris was Paris, for one thing. Even if you’ve never been to the City of Light, even if phrases like “the Lost Generation” and “la Belle Époque” hold for you none of the magic they do for Allen, the film makes you feel their power for his onscreen alter ego, appealingly played by Owen Wilson. For that matter, even if you aren’t an Allen fan — even if you aren’t convinced Allen was ever Allen — Midnight in Paris could almost make you nostalgic for the Allen that fans remember, or seem to.
Which Allen, though? There are almost as many Allens as there are Allen films, but Midnight in Paris is a frothy, whimsical confection that harks back to fantasies like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Zelig — but in a sunnier, more relaxed mode, as if even Allen’s bleak anxieties soften when night falls on the City of Light. The universe may be a cold, violent, meaningless place, Gil Pender (Wilson) muses — and yet there is Paris.
Credit the star, in part, whose distinctly non-East Coast persona caused Allen to rethink and rewrite his main character after Wilson was cast. As Gil, a Hollywood screenwriting hack (by his own admission) yearning to write a serious novel, Wilson is still recognizably “the Woody Allen character,” like many Allen protagonists before him, but with his laid-back charm and unaffected enthusiasm he’s a more likable than usual version, with fewer anxieties and more naiveté.
Gil, visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her chilly, well-to-do parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), is overwhelmed with the romance of the city (beautifully photographed by Darius Khondji) that he feels and they don’t. “To know that Paris exists and anyone would choose to live anywhere else is a mystery to me,” he muses, but even living in Paris wouldn’t be enough for him. “I was born at the wrong time, into the wrong era,” he complains. For him, “when Paris was Paris” means the days of expatriate writers and artists like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; of Cole Porter and Josephine Baker; of Picasso, Dalí and Buñuel.
“All that’s missing is the tuberculosis,” sniggers Paul (Michael Sheen), an insufferable, preening academic whom Gil regards with the same testy unease that Allen did Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Inez, though, fawns over Paul’s erudition, and and isn’t embarrassed for Gil when Paul says things like “Gil’s lament is nothing more than golden age thinking,” as if he were diagnosing a case of psoriasis instead of cutting off a man’s soul at the knees, if souls have knees.
It’s a typically suffocating, Allenesque setup — but then, as unexpected as a delicious breeze on the muggiest urban summer night, a door opens for Gil. Where does it take him? It’s not in the trailer, and even the cryptic end credits coyly avoid spoilers, but most reviews have no qualms about mentioning it, and it’s probably not hard to guess.
At any rate, for Gil Paris comes alive at midnight. He gains admittance to a wonderful world of music and dancing, meets fascinating people and participates in heady conversation. He is delighted when a no-nonsense writer named Gert (Kathy Bates) offers to look at his novel. Then he meets a lovely woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who intrigues him despite, or perhaps because of, her intimidating romantic history.
Midnight in Paris is about the allure of the past, of times and places that loom large in our imagination, when it seems things were more than what they are. It’s also about the illusion of perspective: the past looks romantic to us from our vantage point, and if we went there we might contrive to bring that perspective with us, although to the people actually living then, the past was simply the present. Or one could look further back to other golden ages.
Are golden ages golden while you are living through them? Time and memory sift the past, retaining what is golden and sweet while leaving the chaff behind. In our own day, perhaps, we are more conscious of the chaff, while the good wheat remains half-hidden, not fully appreciated in its day. Time will reveal it more fully to our children.
Or perhaps the past shines as it does because for us, like Judge Picard, the past is bathed in the rosy glow of our own remembered youth (or, if we are young ourselves, that of the glowing memories and anecdotes of our elders). But was our youth itself as rosy as we remember? Is it all just a trick of perspective, the way ordinary surroundings become the mysterious horizon when you get far enough away?
Where is it all going? What’s remarkable about Midnight in Paris is that in the end it’s about seeing through the illusion of nostalgia and yet not being disillusioned — about cherishing the past, while living in the present.
Tolkien wrote about how fantasy can reveal rather than obscure reality: “By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and the Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.”
That’s a speech the nihilism-prone Allen would choke on. Yet in this film he allows a character to claim that “the job of the artist is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” Even that cautious sentiment is probably more than Allen himself believes deep down (certainly his work as a whole hardly seems to reflect such a philosophy). Still, in Midnight in Paris he seems willing to allow the audience, and perhaps even himself, the luxury of hope.
Woody Allen keeps telling us God is dead, but he also keeps compulsively burying him.
Watching Woody Allen’s latest, starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone, is like watching your uncle doing a card trick you’ve seen him do a hundred times.
The first shot in Woody Allen’s Match Point is meant to serve as a metaphorical master-image for the film as a whole: a freeze-frame shot of a tennis ball suspended in space over the net after striking it, poised between falling on one side of the net or the other.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.