Midnight in Paris
Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, and Kathy Bates
Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s most recent film. Like many of Allen’s past films, Midnight in Paris tends towards the more philosophical and the atmospheric. The film heavily references many influential figures in literature and draws a contrast between a modern-day man unhappy with his current life and the romantic atmosphere of Paris in the Roaring Twenties.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is an accomplished Hollywood screenwriter who is in Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams). Though successful in the conventional sense, Gil is also putting significant energy into a side project — writing a book about a “nostalgia shop” that brings people closer to fonder memories from the past. Instead of spending time with Inez and her friends, Gil decides to spend his nights wandering around Paris. When midnight strikes, an old-fashioned car arrives to transport him back in time to a bar in the 1920s. During these midnights, he becomes acquainted with writers and artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso. It goes without saying that Inez thinks Gil is out of his mind when he tells her about the people he has met.
The movie is unconventional in a few major ways. First, Allen does not follow a standard plot structure. He instead uses the movie to focus on clashing philosophies and the atmosphere of Paris. Additionally, although the movie is usually classified as a romantic comedy, romance is not really central to the movie; Gil expresses romantic interest in Picasso’s mistress Adriana and an antiques dealer named Gabriella, but these experiences are only supplementary to the overall philosophical discussion.
Of the themes that Allen discusses, nostalgia is possibly the most important. Gil is somewhat dissatisfied with his current existence and fantasizes about Parisian life in the 1920s. But the actual 1920s characters he meets instead tell him that life was better during Europe’s Belle Epoque of the 1890s. Gil gives his book about a “nostalgia shop” to Gertrude Stein for a read, who gives positive feedback. In contrast, Paul, one of Inez’s friends, reacts snobbishly to Gil’s book, saying that nostalgia is a tool for people who cannot cope with the present.
Other themes are woven into the film more fluidly and amorphously, which gives viewers much room for interpretation. The artists all have vastly different interpretations of what constitutes good self-expression, writing, or painting. In addition, Hemingway provides insight into the meaning and pursuit of courage in a way that reflects his values as a writer.
The philosophical discussions and clever introduction of literary figures and references throughout the film make it highly engrossing. I appreciated the focus of the movie on depicting the contrast between the contemplative, cloudy Paris at day and the lively, clever Paris at night. Allen also succeeds in painting an accurate picture of the Roaring Twenties as a time of optimism and glamour. The personalities of the literary characters in the movie — especially those of Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway — reflect perfectly what we know of them in real life.
One weakness of the movie was the personalities of the main characters. Instead of creating provoking, “real” people, Allen gives the characters a set of well-defined personality traits that fit certain stereotypes. For instance, Gil is portrayed as an absent-minded, outwardly dreamy, and socially removed man who likes to romanticize. Do people who daydream and idealize always have to have these traits? In contrast, his fiancée is matter-of-fact and always focused on bringing Gil “back to earth.” Characters with more mixed personality traits would be more interesting and reflective of actual people.
Overall, I recommend the film. The plot is not particularly conventional, so people looking for an exciting or compelling story might be disappointed. However, I enjoyed the portrayal of the atmosphere of Paris in the 1920s and the literary connections made throughout the movie. These features work perfectly with the philosophical and social commentary packed in the film.