Synopsis: While on a trip to Paris with his fiancée’s family, a nostalgic screenwriter finds himself mysteriously going back to the 1920s every day at midnight. (From IMDb)
Review: Nostalgia is a strong emotion. It paints memories in sepia colored tones and fills people with romantic whimsy. People can experience nostalgia both for their own past and events they have never experienced. Sometimes people feel detached and out-of-place, as if they were meant to live in a different time period. Woody Allen explores this concept in his excellent film Midnight in Paris. This is Allen’s 41st film and is one of his better ones in recent years. My exposure to Allen has been limited, I have seen Match Point, Small Time Crooks, and the horrible Scoop. After watching Scoop I decided to forgo all future Allen films. That is until a friend of my saw Midnight in Paris and said it was a film I needed to watch. I was hesitant but went and loved the screenplay. It is charming, sophisticated, and dripping with literary references. Allen is far from being one of my favorite directors but he did a fabulous job with this movie. Midnight in Paris is one of the few films I can re-watch multiple times and still enjoy it as much as I did the first time.
Midnight in Paris is marketed as a romantic comedy. However, it is more than that and calling it a straight up romance is a disservice to the story. It is more an exploration of the human longing to belong and the illusion people have that a life different from theirs would be much better. In this film a family goes to Paris on business. Part of the family is an engaged couple, Gil and Inez, who are planning to marry in the fall. Gil and Inez are supposedly in love, but Gil might be slightly more in love with Paris in the spring. He is disillusioned with life and looking for some meaning. Gil has made a career out of screenwriting for Hollywood studios but still harbors a dream of being a successful novelist along the lines of his literary idols. Inez wants to live in an upper-class American suburb in Malibu and he wants to live in a small Loft apartment in Paris. He wants to wander around Paris and retrace the steps of Hemingway. Inez just wants to go shopping and moon after an old college crush. One night, Gil wanders off by himself and, as the bell rings midnight, finds himself transported back to the 1920s.
This film is almost like looking into the daydreams of literature majors. It includes “cameos” from Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, Picasso, and others. Allen must have had a blast writing this screenplay, his dialogue is sharp and satisfying. The narrative contains jokes about everyone from Hemingway to Luis Bunuel. But Allen also takes the time to ponder the role of the artist and the importance of not undervaluing the present in favor of the past. After all, it is impossible to live in the past since time always moves forward, never backwards. Midnight in Paris is seductively shot by Darius Khondji. The movie opens with a three minute montage of Paris’ famous landmarks, though the montage lasts longer than strictly necessary. Khondji portrays the modern time in sharp focus with somewhat harsh lighting. As if the modern time has lost all the magic of the past. Everything is loud, almost crass and the people are unrefined. While the scenes set in the 1920s are depicted in sepia tones and soft focus, a tad hazy around the edges. Just like in a dream or a rosy painted memory. Everything feels slightly too good to be true yet comforting at the same time. The dichotomy between the two time periods is wonderful and helps to make the movie seem more like a dream inside of reality. Khondji did a fabulous job making the past come to life and implore the audience to pay attention, Paris is a place where magic can happen.
All of the characters are believable and relatable. Gil is essentially a more charming version of Allen himself. Wilson displays remarkable range, definitely a more nuanced performance than he has given before. Sometimes he even sounds like Allen during a few flustered moments, of which the screenplay offers plenty. Though Wilson is a stronger actor than Allen and really keeps the movie anchored. Rachel McAdams portrays the self-serving Inez, Gil’s shopping obsessed fiancée. She seems to view Gil as more a milestone than a partner, someone who could be easily replaced. She spends most of her time in Paris avoiding Gil and hanging out with her old college crush, Paul. Inez is the antithesis to Gil, very focused on the future and disregarding the past. McAdams does a good job playing the “bad girl”, though Inez has nothing on Regina George from Mean Girls.
Tom Hiddleston is perfect as F. Scott Fitzgerald. He is the perfect combinations of artist angst, anxiety, suaveness and a slight streak of obsession. Corey Stoll is Ernest Hemingway, he steals every scene he is in. I wish he had been in more scenes. Stoll makes Hemingway come across as a tortured force of nature. Adrian Brody puts in a hilarious cameo as Salvador Dali. He is both bizarre and profound at the same time. For not having a lot of screen time he certainly leaves a strong impression. Another treasure is Kathy Bates’ performance as Gertrude Stein. Bates portrays stein as an American, practical, no-nonsense, kind, patient, and possessing a keen eye for talent. She is just like the Stein Hemingway described in A Moveable Feast, his memoir from his time living in Paris. Bates portrays Stein with the authority that cemented her in history as an icon.
Besides Owen Wilson, the most enchanting performance is from Marion Cotillard. She portrays Adriana, an aspiring fashion designer who has a history of becoming a muse to a string of artists. Her connection with Gil is both instantaneous and undeniable but numerous barriers keep any kind of romantic relationship from budding. Cotillard possess an understated charisma that is perfect for this role. Adriana is almost ethereal, slightly unformed and hazy around the edges. She is the perfect counterpart to Gil: in love with the past, enormous with Paris, and willing to walk around and enjoy the small moments. Gil’s relationship with Adriana is sweet and romantic. Wilson as Gil injects the right amount of wide-eyed ingenuousness along with a dash of Allen’s famous nebbish. Their relationship is innocent and enchanting, just how the beginning of a relationship is supposed to look like. Meanwhile, Gil’s relationship with Inez seems more brittle by the moment. As Gil spends more time in the past, he neglects his modern relationships. Thus seeming to confirm his contention that the past is greater than the present.
During the last fourth of the film Allen eventually makes his point: the alluring danger of overwhelming nostalgia. Gil’s obsession with the past is preventing him from living a satisfying life in the present. And this means trouble for the future. After all, how can the future come about if you are constantly stuck in the past? Allen’s point is that all periods of time have their allure but they also have their downsides. One time period may seem more desirable but this idea is formed without taking into the account the uglier side of the past. Midnight in Paris does in excellent job weaving together deep thoughts and a sophisticated comedy, a trait that has been noticeably missing in Allen’s recent works. This is a lovely film and a great tribute to the literary geniuses of the 1920s.