Woody Allen finds new inspiration in the City of Lights.
I first came to Paris in September 2005. Although I don’t live there anymore, I still have crisp memories of that one year. I walked along the Seine while witnessing the glistened waters in the summer sun. Taking the winding paths only left me imagining great literary titans like Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin and countless others, who had walked the same steps many years ago. Similar to Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender, I had an infatuation with the past. Is it not remarkable to place yourself at the same table that Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway once sat themselves back in the day?
Woody Allen’s film, which is undoubtedly his most spellbinding and charming film in years, allows his defeatist protagonist to travel through time and live during the époque when The Lost Generation was intact and where at each party there was never less than five known literary and artistic socialites.
Gil, a screenwriter from California travels to Paris with his fiancé, Inez and his future in-laws. Though the others seem to have a heavy fixation on the States, (Inez’s father is glad about his company’s merger with a French enterprise, but then again, they’re French. Elsewhere, during a wine tasting, her father proclaims his preference for wine from the Napa Valley but considering that they’re 3000 miles away, French wine will suffice.) Gil has his eyes set on imagining a possible life in Paris. The presence of Paul, a former acquaintance of Inez who Gil properly labels as a “pseudo-intellectual” persuades the couple to join him and his girlfriend (or possibly his wife) as they embark on numerous museum visits, mostly to display his uncanny “knowledge” (often improperly citing but confident enough to make his fellow companions accept without argument accept for Gil) on everything that is French, as well as exercising his tenacious scholarly superiority over a refrained and never satisfied Gil.
After an outdoor wine tasting, Gil skillfully camouflages his tipsy state and insists he would rather return back to the hotel than go out for an evening of dancing with the others. Seemingly lost, Gil takes a moment to sit on a staircase. The clock bell rings and an old Peugeot rolls up a hill and comes to a stop. The passengers call out to Gil inviting him to get in. It is here that Allen’s film begins its whimsical and nostalgic path, not only for its protagonist, but as well as for us.
After even more boozing in the car, Gil and the crew of 1920s frappers arrive at a fête. While watching a live performance by Cole Porter, Gil encounters his first set of literary icons: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (played by Alison Pill of “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” cult fame). Bored with the unenthusiastic intellectual crowd, Zelda entices Scott and Gil to change location.
At their next destination, Gil encounters a rugged and philosophically-laced Ernest Hemingway (brilliantly played by Corey Stoll). He then brings Gil to the inner circle. A generous Gertrude Stein (a fun and commanding small role by Kathy Bates) offers to read Gil’s script, while at the same time debating the merit of a painting by Pablo Picasso. The muse of Picasso being a young Frenchwoman named Adriana, has an instant attraction for Gil’s writing, and an instant admiration for him. What later develops over nightly conversations is that Adriana prefers not her current present (which would be Gil’s past) but further back to The Belle Époque (circa 1890’s—otherwise Gil’s secondary past). Her desire to travel in time and live in the past mirrors that of Gil’s. To live in the past is to deny the problems of the present. This is apparent in Gil’s situation as he needs to escape to the past in order to hide from the hideous present: snobby future in-laws and his social-climbing and materialistic fiancé. Thus, for him to settle his dissatisfaction, he becomes dependent on the past in order to better tweak his novel (with the aid of Gertrude Stein) which otherwise he would not be able to accomplish in soliciting the help of Paul or Inez.
The film’s success relies heavily upon an effective performance by Owen Wilson. Taking on the Allen incarnate, Wilson possesses all the right qualities but it is his laid-back and slight approach which makes his character more affectionate not only for the audience as we travel in time with him, (the jaw-dropping in disbelief, the clever one liner when he tells Adriana that her liaisons with various artists is a step up from the typical “art- groupie ”) but also allows us to moralize and understand Gil’s obsession with the past (as the film conveys clearly to us). It is Wilson’s ability to remain cool while whistling sharp objections which makes his character (especially in an Allen film) endearing and sympathetic. It is obvious to viewers that his obsession, though understandably romanticized only exists because of his current miserable state. And trust me, we understand him all too well! A titillating exercise in showcasing other notable figures during that time in the film. For example, Adrien Brody’s Salvador Dalí brings the most laughs, as well as Gil’s suggestion to Buñuel about people imprisoned in a room (which will become “The Exterminating Angel”).
Though a very pleasurable film on any scale, that does not means that it is without faults. There is an arbitrary subplot which involves Inez’s father hiring a private detective to investigate Gil’s whereabouts during his inspirational walks at night. Though the conclusion of this subplot is quite humorous, it is essentially perfunctory. And although the ending is endearing and we are very much under the spell of Woody Allen’s Paris, it appeared too rushed, but this is more a standard with his most recent films. The beginning shots of “Midnight and Paris” are shots of numerous monuments within the city, some more obvious than others. Some shots, it is as magnifique as the images that I have embedded in my memory (at least the good ones). Other times it rains, but it is the end of the beginning segment and the conclusion of the film which takes place during the nighttime in Paris aka The City of Lights. I left the cozy little theater by me in the suburbs of Paris and drank a glass of Cabernet-Sauvignon. It was nice to reminisce, but this is after all the present.