Warning: Spoilers Below
Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is a slyly funny and charmy, as well as almost achingly poignant and nostalgic film. It's this combination that makes the film, despite its small scale, quite meaningful.
The film opens, appropriately, with images of Paris. As the images go by, the day progresses, until we reach...midnight. This opening will no doubt remind Allen fans of his 1979 film Manhattan, which opened with gorgeous black and white images of New York City. The difference between the two openings is that while Manhattan's opening was almost overwhelming and romanticized, Midnight in Paris's opening is rather low key. The images, in colour, as the rest of the film, are romantic but don't seem romanticized. This is a nice contrast with what our main character, Gil Pender thinks of the city in the opening lines of the film, in conversation with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams):
Gil: This is unbelievable! Look at this! There's no city like this in the world. There never was.
Inez: You act like you've never been here before.
Gil: I don't get here often enough, that's the problem. Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain? Imagine this town in the '20s. Paris in the '20s, in the rain. The artists and writers!
Inez: Why does every city have to be in the rain? What's wonderful about getting wet?
From the very first lines, Gil is established as a romantic. While the opening images may not be romanticized, and we may be exhausted by the end of the opening montage, but Gil sees these images through a romantic's lens. Gil is a successful Hollywood screenwriter but Gil sees himself as a hack. While on vacation in Paris with Iznez and her parents, Gil wants to write a novel, which may have less to do with actual ambitions, than the romantic notion of being a writer in Paris.
Gil finally gets to live the romantic's dream when one night while walking through the city he is transported back in time to 1920s Paris. There he meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddelston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill), as well as Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). Stoll is subtly hilarious as Hemingway. While I haven't listened to a lot of recordings of Hemingway speaking, I believe Stoll modelled his speech pattern for this film as the real Hemingway. There's a scene, during the second night Gil goes back in time, where a cab pulls up and Gil opens the door. We don't see who's in it but hear Gil say "Hello Mr. Hemingway." We then cut to a close up of Hemingway talking about war. After a while we cut to Gil's reaction and question. Another director or writer would have shown Hemingway earlier in this scene and would have inserted more reaction shots from Gil. By shooting it this way, Allen gives the scene a slightly off balance and humourous feel. As Hemingway keeps talking you're reminded of Hemingway's sparse sentences and think to yourself, "Oh my God, did he really talk like that?
Gil goes back in time each night, getting advice on his novel, and escaping the annoyance of Inez's gushing over her old friend Paul (Michael Sheen), who is a classic Woody Allen type, the psuedo-intellectual. Sheen does a good job of not overplaying the part. He captures exactly what you'd expect from a guy who's probably smart but over compensates. While I've liked Wilson before I've never been as taken by him as I have here. Wilson does a fine job of blending the laid back nature we associate with his performances with a certain Woodyness that's not an imitation of Allen but rather a channeling of his spirit (I believe Allen has said he would have played the part in the seventies).
While one of Rachel McAdams' most notable roles is that of Regina George in Mean Girls, we usually associate sweetness with her as an actress. I think it took me a while on first viewing for it to register that her Inez is kind of a...well...you know. Like Sheen, McAdams does a good job of not overplaying her role and while Inez could have been developed more (you feel her and Paul don't get proper payoffs), the point of the film is that there is always a disconnect between her and Gil. Whoever Inez truly is as a person,when she's with Gil, any positive qualities have a hard time coming out.
All the actors in the 1920s sequences are having a lot of fun, particularly Stoll as well as Adrien Brody, playing the surrealist painter Salvadore Dali. I would have liked to have spent more time with these characters. There are a lot of comedic possibilities which Allen could have explored. While it also would have been nice to further develop some of these characters, they're such vivid personalities that you don't seem to mind.
What I really admire about the film, is that the film is less about the famous icons of the period then it is about Gil's relationship with a French woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Cotillard is wonderful here, seductive yet vulnerable, filled with a yearning, like Gil, for a earlier time. This relationship growns the film and ultimately leads to what Allen is getting at in this film, which is nostalgia, can blind someone to their life in the present, particularly when its nostalgia for a different time period. When Gil and Adriana go back in time even further to the 1890s, Adriana wants to stay. Gil realizes that everyone, no matter what time period they live in, has their "golden age." Adriana wants to live in the 1920s, the people from Paris in the 1890s want to live in the Renaissance. Allen seems to be saying that we're the only ones who can appreciate the period in which we live, whereas people looking back at that period always view it through a romantic lens. While the world may never be perfect, we have to make the time we have, and the time we in live in, a golden age, because an actual golden age can never truly exist. It's a slightly sad but wise message.
It'd be easy to label Allen as being hypocritical with this message due to how the film's 1920s sequences are romantic. I don't think that's the case. I feel Allen is very sympathetic to Gil's romantic yearnings since Gil seems to be based, in some respects, off of Allen. Also, Allen doesn't demonize nostalgia but acknowledges it as part of human nature. He even gives Paul a line of dialouge where he describes the notion of "Golden Age Thinking," which people like Gil experience. Gil gets the rare chance to experience the time period he loves. It's through this experience that Gil is able to move on. The end of the film suggests new beginnings for everyone. I don't think Gil is no longer a romantic by the end of the film and I don't think Allen expects him to. It's going to be a process for Gil. But it'll be okay. In one way or another, he'll always have Paris.
P.S. I still haven't seen Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, which also deals with similar themes. I need to get on that!