Woody Allen’s fictitious Ernest Hemingway declares “that love that is true and real creates a respite from death” and in Midnight in Paris, Allen proves that the same can be said of film. A love-letter to a bygone era and to all bygone eras, Midnight in Paris captures a beautiful, humorous, sad and above-all very human nostalgia.
As Allen’s mouthpiece, screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) endears in his earnestness about Ernest and plays out the filmmaker’s fantasy to walk amongst ghosts of inter-war intelligentsia. Arriving in Paris, Gil is plagued by a dismissive fiancée, Republican in-laws, and an existential crisis. Contemplating his next step and trying to rationalize his previous hack writing jobs, Gil tries to enjoy and explore the city of light. These attempts are deterred by his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) who considers the trip an excuse to shop and the lectures of a pompous professor acquaintance (Michael Sheen) who has self-appointed himself to be their cultural tour guide.
While breathing in the rainy ambiance of Paris at night, a solo Gil strolls his way into a car on its way to a party full of flappers and meets the Fitzgeralds: the dashing and slick Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and bubbly nearly to the brink Zelda (Alison Pill). This begins an evening of introductions and stumbles into the cultural elite of 1920s Paris émigrés. Gil acts as a first-hand spectator, akin to Fitzgerald’s own Nick Carraway, but also plays a hand in this whirlwind when he sets his eyes on the beauty of Picasso’s latest flame Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Unfortunately, all evenings must end and he is plopped back into the crass modern day. In the backdrop of the current day, his fiancée and her parents begin to fear for his sanity, not as much for his welfare but for his financial support of their daughter.
Luckily for us, Gil has some more time-traveling adventures and insights about life, love, and the mystery of it all. He discovers that he is not the only one who wishes to travel to a bygone era and hobnob with the “greats”. I won’t go into more of the plot for the fear of spoiling this treat of a film, one of such a rare quality in modern cinema, what A. O. Scott of the New York Times called “a credible blend of whimsy and wisdom”, but will say that there are enticing cameos by Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody).
Wilson plays the bumbling screenwriter rather Allen-esque in his slightly stooped walk and uncertain tone. His performance was so close to the real thing that I nearly expected him to push up non-existent glasses. McAdams plays the insipid fiancée to a tee, making one wonder how these two characters got together in the first place other than McAdams’s physical beauty. Sheen is wonderful as a professor as full of pretension as McAdams is devoid of high culture. Cotillard enchants with her large doe eyes full of enthrallment and wonder. My hat is off to the casting director for their spot-on choices in the Fitzgeralds, Stein, Hemingway, and the Surrealists.
Acting as writer and director on the Oscar-winning film, Allen has managed to not overstep into the self-indulgent. In previous films, he has explored his dramatic wanderlust from comedy to drama to noir and from his hometown of Manhattan to European locales. After all of his wanderings, Allen now returns back to his love of the 1920s and his longing for Paris. As a young comedian, Allen performed a bit dubbed “The Lost Generation”, in which he tells of his fictional times with Gertrude Stein, who reviewed, and Ernest Hemingway, who punched. This appreciation of the past acts as a personal signature throughout Allen’s films, reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s curiosity in the American vernacular and Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful use of the uncertain and unseen.
In an interview by Marco Schmidt in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and referred to by Richard Brody in the New Yorker, Allen mentioned his regret of leaving Paris at the end of the shoot of What’s New, Pussycat?. He tells Schmidt of how when he “fell into undying love with that city, the possibility presented itself for me to stay there – but I returned home to America in a panic. I could kick myself for not making use of that opportunity.” This personal note lends an even more heartwarming note to this already heart-melting film as Allen addresses what might have been in a form we can all observe, relate to, and enjoy.
With Midnight in Paris, Allen has returned to the autobiographical stride and mystical blend of humor and philosophy of Annie Hall. Although the film has many autobiographical tinges and explores themes that Allen himself has already covered, it feels fresh in its application to us, the audience, and will feel fresh to each new audience. Our eyes become hazy in the misty Parisian streets and our own memories tug at our heartstrings. Inevitably, there will be people who can’t contemplate the joys of rain, but we kindred spirits will merely smirk to ourselves and hum a happy tune, perhaps Cole Porter, as we stumble on to our own adventures.