“You’re in love with a fantasy.”
And so went one of Woody Allen’s most recent reveries, Midnight in Paris, which follows Gil Pender, played by the charmingly befuddled Owen Wilson. There’s something
that Woody Allen understands about longing that no one else has the capability of articulating. So like many of his stories, this one is one of a search for fulfillment. Gil Pender is a successful Hollywood screenplay writer who winds up in Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her family. The trip forces Gil to confront the failings of his relationship with Inez and the lack of fulfillment he is getting from his life and his career. At midnight, he travels back in time to a place that he imagines to be ‘the golden age’: Paris in the 1920’s.
The film, like most of Allen’s film, has a wonderful cast. It stars the adorable Owen Wilson. Alongside him is Regina George (a.k.a Rachel McAdams) who gets more evil as she gets blonder. The ‘pedantic gentleman’ Michael Sheen, who impresses in a smaller role, as per usual. Then we get a barrage of psychotically amazing performances from royalty like Kathy
Bates, Adrien Brody, Marion Cotillard, Corey Stoll, Alison Pill, and Tom Hiddleston. Sometimes films can get bogged down with too dense a cast, but this orchestration of talents made for a enchanting story.
The magic starts in when the first time skip sequence starts. When Gil first meets F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the Fitzgeralds, there’s a feeling of being profoundly star stricken. I may have even blushed (all due to the incomparably handsome Tom Hiddleston, I’m sure). There were also many peripheral appearances and mentions of sentimental historical characters like Josephine Baker, T.S. Eliot, Cole Porter, Man Ray, Amedeo Modigliani, Henry Matisse and Edgar Degas. The appearance of those fixtures in our culture, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Picasso, Dali, summons the pure mass of artistry they brought. It calls forth those valuable cultural magics that were followed by a recess in love and true art that has extended into ours lives and into the life of Gil Pender. The feeling is truly wonderful, and it is where Allen makes a connection with the intellectual.
Gil: That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.
I would say that the true magic of the film lies not with the time travel, and the beautiful shadows of legends bouncing around the walls of Gil Pender’s mind. No, it lies in the truth that Allen is attempting to communicate through this journey. That dissatisfaction with the present is not an ailment that can be cured by any supernatural escapism. That escape in any form, while romantic and quite wonderful, is not the answer. That the answer to fulfillment and happiness isn’t confined to any particular bracket in time. It’s a worthy message, one communicated beautifully, charmingly and romantically.
Where the film could have improved is in the personal relationships in the present. Gil’s fiancee, Inez, was an altogether one dimensional character with absolutely no
redeeming qualities. As were her parents. The movie was mostly great but a truly great film cannot ignore the opportunity to develop characters, even if the message ultimately has nothing to do with them. The romantic dilemma Gil experiences between Adrianna (Marion Cotillard) and Inez is one that could have been strengthened by a more developed character in Inez.
Allen finds a way to do a million important things in one film. It was stupendously humorous. Michael Sheen’s character Paul provided many good laughs, seeing as he played an insufferable “pseudo-intellectual.” Allen managed to inject humor into the story in every context without losing the heart of the drama. Also, there was an overarching theme of Parisian worship. The romance of the place was really at the crux of this very human story. All of that along with the inclusion of the famous artworks and authentic costuming, this movie achieved authenticity though messaging and atmosphere.
Gertrude Stein: The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.
Woody Allen has a way of taking what appears to be a generic idea, nostalgia, and making it into something very true, and real. Even with the fantastical ‘going back in time’ plot point, somehow the experiences of Gil Pender with the great artists of the 20th century feels close to home. So how does he do it? I think he knows how to tap into some of the most fundamental human dilemmas. Nostalgia for a time you never knew. The feeling that you do not belong. The feeling that you’ve wasted your life. All of which are a part of the internal monologue of our collective psyche as human beings. It’s powerful because it knows you, and it talks to you, and tells you you’re not alone.