For years, I was a major Woody Allen fan, and to this day I adore many of his movies — Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Stardust Memories, to name but a few. But after his marriage to Mia Farrow blew up following the affair with Soon-Yi Previn, I stopped going to see his films, mostly due to a kind of moral loathing.
Long years have since passed, however, and I’d heard so many good things about Midnight in Paris that I decided to set my moral objections aside and take another look.
With an ensemble cast that includes Owen Wilson, Kathy Bates, Marion Cotillard, Adrien Brody and Rachel McAdams, Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen at his best. The opening montage is a kind of homage to Paris, in the way that the first few minutes of Manhattan express Allen’s love for New York City.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful screenwriter from Los Angeles who considers himself a hack; he wishes he’d been born earlier and had lived in Paris of the 1920s, among literary and artistic giants such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali and Gertrude Stein. The longing is so powerful that he’s actually transported back in time to that era and meets with all of his heroes, coming to know them on a first-name basis.
For Gil, it’s a dream come true, the fulfillment of his deepest fantasy wishes.
His preoccupation with this other era distracts him from the mess of his current life. He seems adrift, about to marry Inez (Rachel McAdams), who seems entirely ill-suited to him; he’s unable to decide what to do with his career and the novel he longs to finish. Back in the 1920s, he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), an alluring young woman who has been the mistress, in succession, of all Gil’s idols, leading a life that strikes him as incredibly exciting and glamorous, at the very center of his artistic universe.
But Adriana sees nothing special about her life and wishes she could have lived instead during Paris’ Belle Epoque, the glamorous era that ended with World War I. Her failure to see the riches of her actual life, because she has idealized another era, finally wakes Gil from his fantasy. He realizes that romanticizing some other era and believing he would’ve been happy, if only he could’ve lived back then, means he’s ignoring his present day life, drifting without direction and blind to its hazards and potential beauty.
It’s a light but charming cautionary tale, about the perils of living in fantasy. Believing we’d be happy if only we were a celebrity, more beautiful, richer, etc. stops us from making the most of our actual lives. In its most extreme form, such a longing to be someone other than who we really are, especially when issues of shame are profound, may lead us to escape into a kind of false existence, pretending to be someone other than who we really are, embodying a kind of idealized persona instead.
Fortunately, Gil wakes up from his fantasy in time to avert disaster, breaks off his engagement to Inez and decides to stay in Paris to finish his novel.
Midnight in Paris seems like a sunnier version of another Woody Allen film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, where Cecilia (Mia Farrow) disappears into the fantasy world of film in order to escape her bleak life. At the end of that film, Cecilia winds up disappointed and back in the movie theater, eating popcorn as the reel begins to play.
By contrast, Gil actually chooses reality over fantasy. I suppose it’s much easier to accept “reality” when it means a life in Paris finishing a novel, sustained by all the money you made as a screenwriter … and meeting an attractive bilingual Parisienne to boot. Cecilia understandably finds it much harder to accept being an unemployed, depression-era housewife with an abusive husband (Danny Aiello), and little she can look forward to. There’s only so much harsh reality that any of us can accept.
Photo by Glen Scarborough, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.