Woody Allen has long been known for his love of New York, and for films such as Manhattan that pay homage to the famous American city. Recently his attention seems to have shifted to Europe, through writing and directing Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and now Midnight in Paris. Both these films are expressions of love – albeit romanticised – towards the respective cities of their titles.
Midnight in Paris is not as strong as Vicky Christina Barcelona, but it is equally fun and delves into a similar theme: the enchantment of Europe for some Americans – in particular, the dreamy, wannabe-Bohemian, with aspirations towards artistic endeavour.
In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the dreamer was Cristina (played by Scarlett Johansson), whose artistic endeavour was photography and who revelled in the sexual freedom that she found in Barcelona. In Midnight in Paris, the dreamer is Gil (Owen Wilson), a scriptwriter who has hit the big time with formulaic Hollywood movies but who longs to be a novelist.
Gil is on holiday in Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. The parents are boring and conservative, and Inez, although beautiful and eager to enjoy herself, looks set to follow in their materialistic footsteps.
Inez likes the idea of Gil’s dreaminess, but in Paris the bohemian streak soon becomes too much for her. She begins to prefer the company of some friends she bumps into while in Paris: Carol (Nina Arianda) and Carol’s pedantic, arrogant partner, Paul (Michael Sheen).
The movie begins with a series of scenes of Paris, setting up Gil’s seduction by the fantasy of the city. He and Inez do the touristy thing, visiting museums and gardens. Carla Bruni appears as a museum guide, arguing with Paul over Rodin’s mistresses and later translating some French for Gil; there is a certain irony in the first lady of France showing tourists around a garden.
Gil’s love for Paris is tainted, however, with nostalgia. Paris as it is cannot quite satisfy him, and he longs instead for Paris of the 1920s. Inez thinks he’s barmy, and while she is out dancing with Paul, Gil walks the streets at night. His fantasy becomes a reality when he is in the right place at the right time, and accidentally hitches a lift into the 1920s.
There, Gil meets the famous writers and artists who lived in Paris at the time: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and others. At this stage I was happy to be lulled into Gil’s fantasy: what a dream, to meet Hemingway and Stein! One almost wants it to be true.
Wilson has the perfect face for this role: his wide-eyed stare as he starts to realise where he is after meeting the Fitzgeralds might seem forced on any other actor, but he pulls it off by looking like a good-natured, surprised puppy who is rather desperate for attention.
The movie also stars the Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard as Picasso’s short-term girlfriend Adriana. Gil falls for her, seduced as much by her embodiment of the era as by her as a person. She, however, thinks the ’20s are quite boring, and longs to live during the Belle Époque. She unintentionally makes Gil realise that he is not alone in his nostalgia: at each stage in history there will be those who look back longingly at what came before, and who are too distracted to appreciate the beauty of the age in which they live.
Gil’s nostalgia struck a chord for me, as I have always dreamed of a world before cars and diesel power, when sailing ships ruled the seas and people rode about on horseback. Allen seems to suffer from nostalgia too, telling New York in 1998 that he regretted being too young to have experienced New York during the ’20s and ’30s.
As in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the main characters of Midnight in Paris are upper-middle class Americans in a European city. On the one hand, Allen critiques these characters, particularly Inez and her family who see Europe as a holiday destination through the lens of their own superiority complex. On the other hand the film only confirms this attitude by not probing beyond the surface layer of the city. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, the cities are seen as they would be by tourists: enchanting, full of sexy people of the opposite gender, and a long way from the constraints of the US. Midnight in Paris represents the view of an outsider who approaches with a preconceived notion of Paris; a notion that experience does not seem to alter.
Midnight in Paris is light and fluffy, and while Gil’s relationship with Inez is quite implausible, it is easy to be swept up in his fantasy of Paris. It is a city that has long seduced artists through promises of freedom and inspiration, and Allen’s latest film does nothing to detract from this ideal.