Midnight in Paris (2011)

Film #19: Midnight in Paris (2011)

Midnight in Paris is, impressively enough, Woody Allen’s 41st film. A three-and-a-half minute opening montage of Paris leads the viewer to believe that this will be a heartfelt dedication to the City of Love, similar to how Allen’s 1979 classic Manhatten was a love letter to New York. Although the film does make a point that Paris is a magical place, and protagonist Gil (played by Owen Wilson as Woody Allen’s proxy) is, indeed, infatuated with the city, Midnight‘s sentimental story has more commentary about nostalgia than anything else, along with Allen’s ever-present self-awareness of art and the artist.

Gil and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) are visiting Paris since Inez’s wealthy and conservative parents are making a business investment there. Though Gil is absolutely taken with the town, Inez would just as soon return to the States, looking forward to an eventual home in Malibu. This geographic disagreement is the least of differences between the two characters; while Gil is slaving away at a novel in an attempt to find creative fulfillment, Inez just wants him to continue his tawdry but well-paying job as a Hollywood screenwriter. Adding to the couple’s tension is the presence of Inez’s pretentious friend Paul, who publicly dismisses Gil’s obsession with 1920s Paris as misplaced nostalgia.

Gil finds no love among his contemporary peers.

One night Inez chooses to go out with Paul instead of returning home with Gil, so he takes an inebriated walk through Paris’ streets. Drunk and despondent, he finds himself dropped into his dream era after an old-fashioned car picks him up upon the stroke of midnight. Gil slowly realizes what’s happened to him, and before you know it, he’s meeting all sorts of literary legends. His most consistent contact is none other than Ernest Hemingway, played by Corey Stoll in a manner as direct as Hemingway’s prose. I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about Stoll’s performance – his intense gaze and tough bravado (that might just be covering up some drunken despair) had me captivated every time he was onscreen. Hemingway’s frank straight-talking stands in stark contrast to Gil’s awkward stammering, and he agrees to help Gil out by taking him to his editor and mentor, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates – spectacular as per usual). This meeting sets off two sparks in Gil: A creative one, in that Stein finds his work good enough to look over, and a romantic one, in the form of Pablo Picasso’s flapper mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

Adriana (Marion Cotillard) and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll)

Gil’s nightly returns to Adriana and the 20s compounds his contemporary relationship issues, and despite being an author – a position Hemingway equates with observation – Gil’s a little slow on the uptake. At first I was bothered by how obvious the problems in Gil’s life were: His nostalgia was clearly overwhelming his ability to enjoy the present, and his choice in a compatible partner would have been better off selected at random. But then I realized that was the point. This is a movie about Gil working his problems out for himself, and all of the trial-and-error that accompanies that process. It involves a lot of thinking aloud and clarifying ideas in the hope of taking one step further toward resolution. Gil’s steps are baby steps, but he is able to take them, mostly by bouncing ideas off of his pals from the past and taking their words of advice to heart. In fact, it’s Stein who indirectly calls him out on being obtuse, questioning how the protagonist of his novel could miss the fact that his partner was having an affair (the partner and lover being manifestations of Inez and Paul, respectively).

Even surrealists (Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, and Salvador Dalí [Adrien Brody]) help Gil work toward a solution.

Another idealistic hang-up  that Gil has to confront is his nostalgia, and it’s Adriana who helps him realize that his desire for the past is unsustainable. Gil’s interest in Adriana spills over into time-traveling infidelity when he finally embraces her in a kiss, but their first romantic night out takes a twist as they, too, are transported into another time – a horse-drawn carriage picks them up and transports them to her favorite era, Belle Époque (Paris’ version of America’s Gilded Age in the late 1800s). As the artists they encounter there reminisce about how wonderful the Renaissance must have been, Gil finally realizes that you can’t just keep wishing for the past, or else you risk pining for it ad infinitum (or at least until you find yourself waxing nostalgic about the days of Kubla Khan). Adriana has yet to come to this wisdom, so they sadly part ways – her staying in the 1890s, Gil eventually returning to his own time to make the best out of the present. The film ends with some hope for our hapless hero, finally finding a woman who can also appreciate the past – and the romanticism behind a rainstorm stroll.

Midnight in Paris is a warm and honest movie from one of cinema’s most prolific filmmakers. In it, Allen confronts his own nostalgic ideals. At first, the medicine is bitter, coming from Pedantic Paul – we reject the message because of the messenger, and stand behind Gil (Allen)’s romantic nostalgia on a matter of principle. But Allen concludes that perhaps the past is better left to the past, and that we can’t reject the time we live in because of our rose-tinted hindsight. Allen’s honesty expands this confrontational criticism to his storytelling style, with Bates’ Stein telling Gil that he can’t be such a despairing author. Her criticism of him being a defeatist is probably one that Allen has himself endured many times during his career.

Sweet, sentimental, and with a story that’s strong enough to support two different eras, Midnight in Paris is one of the best movies of 2011. Woody Allen’s interrelational humor is brought to life by an impeccable cast, and together they create a film that’s a love letter to myriad things: Paris, the 20s, the artists of the Lost Generation, and, simply enough, good cinema.

Final rating: 8.5/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • I loved hearing F. Scott Fitzgerald drop “old sport” in conversation. However, I realized how uncultured I am (at least in comparison to Woody Allen) when I read the Wikipedia article that pointed out all the historical figures I didn’t recognize (especially when they went back to the 1890s – no clue who any of those dudes were).
  • The spots of political commentary that Gil and Inez’s dad occasionally spout off seemed out of place, but at least both sides were presented as equally uninformed.
  • I love that there’s no explanation given for the time-traveling, except for the implicit point that Paris is a magical city. You can’t even chalk it up to inebriated imagination, since the tail that Inez’s father hires ends up stuck in the 1890s (or possibly even earlier? I wasn’t sure).
  • That museum guide who argues with Pedantic Paul was played by Carla Bruni, who’s married to Nicolas Sarkozy – you know, the President of France. No big deal though.
  • Gil is so clueless that he doesn’t realize the fault in nostalgia even as he writes about it in his novel – that opening line was excellent, by the way, much better than I expected it to be (“‘Out Of The Past’ was the name of the store, and its products consisted of memories: what was prosaic and even vulgar to one generation have been transmuted by the mere passing of years to a status at once magical and also camp.”)
  • It’s one thing for the protagonist to be oblivious to obvious problems; it’s another to have dialogue that’s simply too on-the-nose, of which some of the final scenes were guilty.
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One response

  1. I was immediately put off this movie because of Owen Wilson but I’m hearing so many good things about it I might give it a go!

    March 5, 2012 at 6:25 pm

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