Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Midnight in Paris" Yearns for Yesterday

Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" was a first for me. First time for a fire alarm in the middle of a movie!

And you wouldn't think that this sweet, beguiling movie would really lend itself to that kind of interruption. Okay, so the fire alarm didn't add to its charms. But it is definitely to the film's credit that we all filed back into the dark theater, took our seats, and fell back under its spell without a hiccup.

"Midnight in Paris" shows off lots of pretty pictures of Paris, enough to make it clear the movie is intended as a valentine to the City of Lights, but it also has deeper themes, about a desire to go back in time, to find a "golden age" when life and art and love seem much more beautiful. For screenwriter and wannabe novelist Gil Pender, the Woody Allen alter ego played by Owen Wilson, the perfect time and place would be Paris in the 1920s. At night. In the rain. Mostly, Gil yearns to find the smoky, romantic, bohemian "Lost Generation" experience made so appealing in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Unfortunately, Gil has come to Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), who is all about shopping and dining and dancing and trailing after either her stuffy parents or the insufferable Paul (Michael Sheen), an old friend who has a habit of pontificating endlessly about art.

In a way, Inez represents everything that's wrong with Gil's life in the present. She's materialistic and shallow, while he's trying to figure out how to get himself out of his career as a Hollywood schnook and into the deeper world of a novelist, where he, like his literary heroes, can grapple with mortality and passion, nostalgia and romance, and maybe even the very meaning of life.

It's pretty tough to talk about the appeal of "Midnight in Paris" without spoiling the plot, so you are forewarned. Spoilers ahead! A look at the credits for "Midnight in Paris" will do the same thing, however, so... Don't read ahead, and don't look at the credits, if you really don't want to be spoiled.

"Midnight in Paris" really starts to take off when Gil decides to walk back to the hotel (rather than taking a cab) so that he can drink in all that Paris after dark has to offer. But he's fairly drunk and he doesn't know where he's going, and so he gets hopelessly lost. Around a bend, he sits on some steps to collect his thoughts, and a clock strikes midnight. A mysterious Peugeot, right out of 1925, pulls up, and the people inside invite him in and take him along to a party. A costume party? Au contraire. It seems the Peugeot has transported him back in time to Paris in the Jazz Age, the very place he longed to see. Soon he's hobnobbing with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, Stein, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Luis Buñuel... And a lovely woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who is deep and dark and passionate and everything he could wish for in a muse.

After that, he can't resist. So, every midnight, Gil goes back to his stairs and waits for the Peugeot. And every time, he falls a little more in love with this enchanted Paris of the 1920s. Chatting with Hemingway about fear, getting literary critiques from Gertrude Stein, falling in love with Adriana...

So that's your story, as Woody Allen dances around the question of whether there really is a better time, a "golden age," that can solve everything. Owen Wilson is not the perfect Allen stand-in for me, although he adds a naiveté and sweetness to the patented stammering and amusing discourses on sex and death and politics, and he does a very nice job with the light, droll mood of the piece. I found myself rooting for Gil and what he might find with Adriana, beautifully played by Cotillard.

Rachel McAdams isn't as successful; her Inez is not very attractive and there doesn't seem to be any reason Gil would've been with her in the first place, but I suppose she serves her purpose.

And everything else about the movie works like a charm. I love time travel. I love the 1920s. I love the examination of nostalgia and yearning, of the literature and art and movies that are still important to my generation, and I love the fundamental idea that we can romanticize about the past all we want, but we still belong in our time, when push comes to shove.

I'd still like to pop back to Broadway in the 1920s to catch some Fred and Adele Astaire, however. Or the Columbian Exposition in 1893. In case any mystery cars or carriages want to come by for me.

In his review, Roger Ebert opined that this movie would not suit everyone, and in fact was probably not intended for everyone, but it was perfect for him. I'm with you, Roger. "Midnight in Paris" is perfect for me. Even with a fire alarm.


  1. Stopped reading halfway through due to spoiler alert! But what I did read makes me want to see the movie, so thanks!! (So does the poster!)

  2. It's not playing in Bloomington-Normal, so we had to drive over to Champaign to see it. I don't know how long you are going to be able to hang on without seeing spoilers!

    You can read my last paragraph, though. It's not spoilery!

  3. I saw this last weekend, the first Woody Allen movie in a long time I've taken the trouble to see in a theater right away. And I chose right; it was just for me. I don't have any particular Paris-longing (being more of an Anglophile), but this movie could develop some in me.

    But it was the other part of the movie that really hooked me in. And most of the reviews I saw spoiled it without any warning, and I didn't mind at all. I mean is a basic story premise considered a spoiler now? But anyway, SPOILER AHEAD:

    Not just the period look, and the dead-on casting of the past-people, but the fantasy appeal of having all your idols from another time hang out with you and want to be your best buddies and help you with your writing... that's heady stuff. And beautifully carried out.

    I do wish Woody Allen could resolve his stories without putting a big explaining-it-all speech in someone's mouth near the end; but he's always done that (not in every movie, but intermittently back into the 70s). And it doesn't lessen my love for this bonbon.

  4. I'm so glad you've seen it, too, Jon, and loved it, too. I was really smitten with this movie, and I think it was mostly the mood and the beautiful way he captured the romantic longing for another time.

    He also hit both my hot times with the 20s and the Belle Epoque.