Occasionally, a film comes along that captures your imagination. Midnight in Paris (2011) is one such film. My only regret is that I did not see it sooner, and I could not tell you why this was the case. I am not necessarily a Woody Allen hater, despite his odd choice of spouse. That is a story for another time. As I have previously chronicled, I enjoyed Anything Else (2003). Midnight Paris is a similar film in tone, but it is my new favorite Woody Allen film. It is short and sweet, and has more charm than the former, though that is not meant to be detraction. Since it is a film that I rented, and ultimately bought, I had the privilege of being able to watch it again as soon as the end credits rolled. I do believe that was a first for me, and I have watched it a number of times since. Please read the rest of this review to understand why.
Admittedly, I was worried with the opening montage of Midnight in Paris. It is a collection of shots of the title city set to a plodding Sidney Bechet tune. Again, charming, but after a few turns I got the point. Soon enough, we get to Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) taking in Claude Monet’s famous workshop and inspiration for many of his famous Impressionist Era-defining paintings. Gil is taken by it all, not just the gardens, but all of Paris, and tries to convince Inez to move there once they are married. Inez is less thrilled. They are in the City of Light with Inez’s parents, dad, John (Kurt Fuller), being sent by his company. Let us just say that John and Helen (Mimi Kennedy), his wife, are not Francophiles, and Inez inherited their attitude. Still, throughout their interactions, Gil, being a writer, sees inspiration in every street, especially in the rain. It makes for some tense moments, which are only exacerbated by the unexpected appearance of Paul Bates (Michael Sheen). He had been a professor of Inez’s in college, and she confesses to once having a crush on him. As such, she insists on her and Gil following Paul around Paris while he intellectualizes everything and makes fun of Gil’s obsession with the 1920s. After another of these events when Inez goes dancing with Paul and his wife, Gil wanders the boulevards alone. At the title hour, while resting on some steps, a vintage 1920s car pulls up and its occupants insist that he comes with them. They take him to a party where everyone is dressed like it is his favorite era. There is a person playing music who is a dead ringer for Cole Porter (Yves Heck), and he is also introduced to two people going by Zelda (Alison Pill) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston). When they do not understand his incredulity, and the rest of the setting sinks in, Gil finally realizes that somehow he has traveled back to Paris in the 1920s, a dream come true. The night gets better when the Fitzgeralds take him to another bar and they introduce Gil to his literary idol: Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). Though Hemingway initially challenges Gil to a boxing match, they soon get down to talking about writing. Gil mentions that he has been working on a book of his own, and Hemingway agrees to take it to the only person whose opinion he trusts on manuscripts, the famous Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Gil can hardly believe his luck, but when he leaves the bar to retrieve his pages, the spell wears off and he is back in the twenty-first century. The next night, Gil attempts to bring Inez with him, taking her to the same steps but not realizing that it needed to be at the appointed hour. She gives up long before he does, and his patience is paid off when he is able to bring his work directly to Stein. In doing so, he gets to meet the mistress of Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Gil is immediately smitten with her, and now he has two secrets. This coupled with his lack of interest in anything going on in the twenty-first century, and Inez not seeming to care due to her growing feelings for Paul, mean that they are growing apart. His attraction for Adriana also seems to be mutual, particularly as he happens upon a diary of hers in a book shop in the twenty-first century and finds her writing about him. Thus, the next time he goes back to the 1920s, along with Stein liking his book, he is determined to stay with her. Interestingly, she, too, has a love for a different era in Paris’ history, this one being the so-called Belle Époque. This is basically the 1870s. Hence, during their night together, they end up traveling back to this era. So delighted is she by this development, and the luminaries of that time that they meet, that she decides to remain. Her attitude makes Gil realize that he had been nostalgia chasing, and that it is time to return to the twenty-first century and face reality. This means confronting Inez, who confesses to cheating on him with Paul, firmly stating his desire to remain in Paris and write, and breaking off their engagement. Still, all is not lost as while walking alone later that night, Gil has a chance encounter with Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), a French shopkeeper that had earlier stocked Cole Porter records when Gil had mentioned his love of that music. And, of course, it begins raining.
While Midnight in Paris is a short movie, there was much that I left out in my plot synopsis. There are other chance encounters with other big names in the art and cultural world of the 1920s, and earlier. A particularly funny one is when Gil meets Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), who loudly repeats his name in the hopes that it will be remembered. Memory is a big theme in the film, more specifically, nostalgia. Earlier, Paul defines this as “golden era thinking,” the notion that whatever the present is, it would never be as good as it was in the past. It reminds me of a joke: the thing about nostalgia is that it will never be as good as it used to be. Jokes aside, there is a Christian commentary to be made. God is ruler of past, present, and future, but all we have is the present. There is a moment when Jesus calls a man to follow Him, but is told that this perspective disciple must first go and see to funeral arrangements for his parents. Jesus tells the man to let the dead bury the dead. This might sound confusing on the surface, but Our Savior is reminding his followers that not believing in Him means that they will not have life everlasting in His Kingdom. There is another way of thinking about this in regards to the theme we are discussing. There is Jesus, God incarnate, right before this fellow out plowing his field, and Our Lord is basically told to “hang on a second.” This person is looking to his past and clinging on to it in a way that is blocking him from that which God desires most: a relationship with Him. At the same time, how many of us would probably respond in the same way if we were blessed to have Jesus come down in the flesh and personally invite us to follow him? Like the man in his field, Gil is looking to the past and not recognizing the needs of the present. This is what an excess of nostalgia can do to you.
One thing that has not come from my description of Midnight in Paris is how funny it is. Woody Allen knows how to make the awkward laughable, and it shines throughout the film. Honestly, I cannot say enough good things about this film, and it can be considered in my top five all time favorites. I may even watch it again after I finish this review.