Written By: Daniel Kinsley
“Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Woody Allen is one of the most prolific American auteurs in modern film-making. In a career that has spanned since the mid-1960s, Allen has more or less adhered to a schedule of one film per year. It is in no uncertain terms a staggering output, and in that time he has produced his share of classics. While his most famous works, typically for cinephiles and the general public, were a product of the 70s and 80s, the first film this writer saw from his oeuvre was Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). It is modern-day Woody, and therefore generally regarded as a lesser work; and while it is unlikely to be hailed as one of his greatest films, for a budding fan, it was enough to determine that his was a voice that was worth exploring.
Since that time, Allen has produced 8 more films, and this writer has made more of an attempt to brush up on his catalogue, both old and new. Not every experience was moving, or profound, though viewers (like this one) who appreciate what Allen brings to the table can ordinarily find something to enjoy about most of his work. While films like Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) are great films and have made indelible marks, for this writer, the most wholly satisfying experience came from the latter day Allen, in a film that is warmly regarded, but still second-tier.
Midnight In Paris (2011) made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, before beginning a roll-out to wide release both internationally and in the U.S. The film was well-liked by audiences and critics alike; enough that it went on to become Allen’s highest domestic grossing film,* and received four Academy Award nods, winning one for Best Original Screenplay. For this writer, it could not have come at a better time.
Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender (the Woody stand-in), a successful screenwriter who yearns to feel like a real writer. Gil is working on his first novel (about a man who works in a nostalgia shop) but finds himself struggling to make the leap in format. Gil’s fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams) dismisses Gil’s ambitions as folly, and insists he stick with (the more lucrative) screenwriting. While on vacation in Paris, the two run into an old friend of Inez named Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife, Carol. Inez is taken with with Paul’s pedantic knowledge, while Gil finds him unbearable. Though they are to be married soon, Gil and Inez are worlds apart; Gil finds romanticism in everything, while Inez is a strict manner of practical, he wants to move to Paris, while she wants to settle in Malibu. Rachel McAdams has always excelled at both the girl-next-door persona as well as the mean girl (pun intended) and here, while she is undoubtedly a supporting player, she is the perfect pitch of California upper crust.
One night while Inez is out dancing with Paul and Carol, Gil gets drunk, gets lost, and finds himself beckoned into a car filled with people dressed in a fashion reminiscent Roaring 20s. When Gil arrives at his destination, he finds himself talking to the likes of Cole Porter (Yves Heck), and Ella and Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston, respectively). Gil soon realizes that he has been transported in time to the 1920s, an era he feels a deep affection for, in his favorite city in the world.
Gil spends the next several nights returning to the 1920s, as a car appears in the same place at midnight to pick him up. He spends his time hanging out in bars and cafes, and work-shopping his novel with the likes of Ernest Hemingway. The film gets a lot of laughs out of the historical figures Gil encounters, from the Fitzgeralds, to Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) among others. All of the icons are wonderfully cast, and Stoll as Hemingway is a particular delight, as he leans into the writers’ intensely brooding machismo. It is the mysterious beauty of Adriana (Marion Cotillard) however, that truly complicates things, as Gil finds himself first drawn to her, then falling in love with a woman literally out of the past. As Gil becomes more embroiled in both the past and his feelings for Adriana, he is pulled further away from his real life (and his failing relationship) in the present.
Soon, the two fall in love and begin a strange courtship. One night, during a walk through the Parisian night, a horse-drawn carriage pulls up beside them and draws them even further back in time, to the 1890s, the time which Adriana feels most where she might have belonged. The problem with the past is that sooner or later, it begins to feel a lot like the present. Life, after all, is life, and one faces many of the same existential dilemmas no matter what year it is. It is not until Gil sees himself in a mirror image as Adriana is swept even further down the rabbit hole that his nostalgia is rooted less in an ideal that can be discovered than it is in his own fear of leading a dissatisfying life. Nostalgia remains a powerful drug, however, and it is often easier for one to imagine that if things were a bit different they would be better. In response to Gil’s epiphany, Adriana shrugs, “That’s the problem with writers. You are so full of words.”
Owen Wilson is often undervalued as an actor, probably because he has often leaned into his affable persona, but here he is excellent as a man who has not quite figured out his place in the world. It is a joy watching him bounce off of the many characters he encounters; his enthusiasm and joy is so unbridled and sincere, it is difficult not to be swept up in it. Underneath the charms, he brings a vulnerability and a melancholy to Gil that had not been called on much before or since. All of this is not to dismiss the fact that he is funny as hell. Similarly, Cotillard is luminous (as usual) in playing the woman too slippery to hold onto, for one reason or another.
For this writer, the movies have always been a source of comfort, a prism with which to view the real world and make sense of it. In 2011, life was very different for this writer. After returning home to Pennsylvania after an aborted attempt at schooling, a decision was made to head back South. Suffice it to say in no time at all, the decision did not work out as well as one might have hoped. As Gil discovered that the charm of getting what you want often comes with a bit of bite, this writer found himself relating to an uncomfortable degree. Chasing after a feeling is often a fool’s pursuit, as it is a bit too nebulous to ever accomplish with any degree of longevity. Before the film ends, the clock strikes midnight a final time, but Gil chooses to stay in the present. Sometimes, the truth of a thing is simple: wherever you go, even through space and time, there are you are.
The conclusions that the film comes to are simple ones, but as Hemingway might have said, they are true and and honest, and it affirms that to truly be in the present is difficult, and requires a degree of bravery. After seeing the film for the first time, things made a sort of sense again. Equilibrium had been restored, if only for a moment, to a turbulent time. As Gertrude Stein puts it in the film, “The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” And sometimes, when one is very lucky, the right piece of art arrives at the time when it is needed most. If life remains a little unsatisfying, well, that is only because it is meant to be.
*Without adjusting for inflation, in which case Manhattan (1979) remains his biggest hit.