Midnight in Paris: Back to L'Âge d'Or



The glamour of Cannes fizzled away this weekend; amidst the controversy and chatter left by Lars Von Trier, Woody Allen’s new film Midnight in Paris (2010) seems to have endued lighthearted laughter and elevating diversion to the festival. Midnight in Paris is yet another ode to the city of light. While some may have tired of Paris clichés, Allen finds magic in slighted corners of the French capital. Our protagonist sees beauty even in the rain, seeking romance in the relics of the 1920s, when American expatriates roamed the streets and mingled with European artists and writers. The film breathes new life into old Parisian archetypes, while still managing to maintain our old favorites. Allen even offers a cameo from France's first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. As our protagonist, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), falls deeper into his Parisian fantasies, the novel that he is writing slowly melds into his waking life. While some critics have judged the film as superficial, I found it to be a whimsical homage to some of the greatest artists to have passed through the city.


Gil is a successful screenwriter who has grown tired of Hollywood and who is now confronting his identity as a “sell out” popular film writer by tapping into the creativity of Paris at Midnight. He romanticizes about Paris in the twenties, what he sees as the golden age of writers and artists. He becomes so engrossed in its charm that one night, he actually travels back in time at the stroke of twelve. He revels with the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill) as Cole Porter provides the tunes, philosophizes with Hemmingway (Corey Stoll), and seeks writing advice from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Dalí (Adrian Brody) finds inspiration in Gil for a new painting, while our protagonist offers creative advice to filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van). His famous guides lead him through the streets of Montmartre, to Bricktop’s, the legendary keystone of black culture in Paris, where American expatriates of all races swapped dances and stories from home, a parallel movement to the Harlem Renaissance. Yet, conspicuously missing in Ada “Bricktop” Smith’s club, or in Paris in general, are Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes. Nevertheless, each time our protagonist runs into someone new, you find yourself as excited as him, awestruck and giggling over your luck at seeing another legend come to life in front of your eyes. You can’t help but fall in love with the magic of Paris in the 1920s.


Yet as Owen Wilson’s character engrosses himself in fanciful midnight adventures, his relationship with fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) eventually clicks into focus. In one of Allen’s archetypal babbling monologues, Gil hilariously admits that he and Inez have nothing in common—except for maybe the love of Indian food; but on second thought, all they really agree on is the “pita” bread.  Meanwhile, his eyes wander towards the lovely Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the once upon a time lover to Braque, Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), and Hemmingway whom he meets on decadent rendezvous in 1920s Paris. They both share an idolization of an eternal Paris—Gil, immersing himself in the 1920s, and Adriana deeming Paris’s l’âge d’or as that found in Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Gauguin, and the Moulin Rouge in the 1890s. As Gil discovers that the collective “we” will always be chasing our fantastical pasts, he decides to move ahead to the present. As was the case in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), the male protagonist lives his life happily ever after in his present fantasy, swapping the nagging ex-partner with a new, younger inamorata.


Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian dismisses the film as “a shallow examination of nostalgia with endearing performances from Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard.” Perhaps it is nostalgia for Allen’s earlier works that founds Bradshaw’s bias, as is evident in the comment, “It's a romantic fantasy adventure to be compared with the vastly superior ideas of his comparative youth.” Or perhaps Allen’s idolization of the French capital is too much for an Englishman’s natural tendencies toward despising the French. More realistically, Bradshaw seems to be tired of Allen’s classic exaggerated adoration of cities that he—in Allen’s own words—“idolizes all out of proportion.” Yet, David Edelstein from NPR and A. O. Scott from The New York Times both give the film rave reviews. Edelstein effuses that the filmtakes him back to the good old days of Woody’s canon “in which Allen regularly turned out freewheeling, pitch-perfect tall tales in print and onscreen.”


Wherever you may stand, Allen reminds us to live in the present and to recognize the beauty around you, and as always, gives us false hope—albeit desired—that fantasies can ultimately be fulfilled if you just follow your dreams. At this moment, I’ll take the healthy dose of optimism.