Midnight in Paris (2011): Lessons in Nostalgia

midnightin1Midnight in Paris begins with scene after scene of the Parisian landscape. It gives off the feel of a lazy vacation, strolls in the park, sidewalk cafes aplenty, and even romantically rainy afternoons. For those who have never been to Paris, it makes you fall in love with the city in only a matter of minutes. Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is such a person who would easily be content with the Left Banke, Baguettes, and a chance to write his latest novel.  There is an air of wonderment that pervades his very being. He’s often naive and unassuming — hardly someone you would peg for a big Hollywood success story.

He’s about to be hitched to Inez (Rachel McAdams), a young woman who epitomizes the affluent American girl who was used to getting everything she wanted from dear old dad. Now she’s going to marry rich and maintain her lifestyle. Her life is a continual conveyor belt of first world problems. Such as buying a pair of 20,000 euro chairs in an antique shop. Meanwhile, she is easily impressed by puffed up pontification.

When she runs into an old school friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife, all Inez wants to do is listen to him talk. After all, he knows about painting, philosophy, wine, and about anything else a stuffy intellectual should know. To coin a phrase he’s a contemptuous, conceited bag of hot air,  or as the museum guide (Carla Bruni) so aptly puts it, “a pedantic gentleman.”

midnightin4For obvious reasons, Gil cannot stand spending time with his wife’s friends. Instead, those breezy, absent-minded walks down the lanes are more his taste. Inez can’t begin to understand why he does it, but one night he’s in for a big surprise. One minute he’s  out for a stroll and then the clock chimes twelve. All of the sudden something a la Cinderella happens. A coach pulls up, Gil tentatively gets in not knowing what he has just stumbled upon, incognizant of the adventure ahead of him.

What follows are the most whimsically joyous moments of the film. Gil has wandered into 1920s Paris, and it’s beyond his wildest dreams. It’s practically paradise with the music of Cole Porter, dancing, pretty girls, and the biggest names you could ever hope to meet. In fact, you can tell Woody Allen has great pleasure in bringing to life such visionaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Piccaso, Salvidor Dali, Luis Bunuel, and so on.

It’s too much fun to be critical of historical accuracy. After all the Fitzgeralds throw wonderful parties, Hemingway gives Gil romantic advice, and he gets his fledgling novel read by none other than Stein. All the while Gil returns to the present giddy with excitement about what he has experienced, but Inez has none of his appreciation for nostalgia. She’d rather go dancing with Paul because he’s so refined.

midnightin2The linchpin of the whole story is really the ravishing French beauty Adrianna (Marion Cotillard), the muse of Picasso, the desire of Hemingway, and a new-found friend of Gil. He cannot help but be enraptured by her grace and the time they spend together is wonderful, that is until he tells her that he is pledged to be married. Although, it looks like he and Inez will not be together much longer as they continue to drift further and further apart.

It’s in one of his last visits to the past that Gil makes the startling discovering that Midnight Paris hinges on. He realizes Adrianna dreams of the turn of the century as he dreams for the roaring twenties. Toulouse Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas dream about the majesty of the Renaissance. In such a revelation lies a valuable lesson (“I was trying to escape my present the same way you’re trying to escape yours, to a golden age”).

In doing so Gil comes to appreciate his present, because life may be unsatisfying at times, but perhaps maybe that’s the way it should be. Otherwise, we would never know what true joy or excitement or love is. There would be no change, no threshold to truly experience life as it is. Gil can go back to his nostalgia shops and Cole Porter hit parades and that’s alright. But now he’s found a Parisian girl (Lea Seydoux) who shares his affinity for long walks in the rain. This is certainly a fairy tale ending, but then again this whole story is a fantasy. In getting a little bit sentimental Woody Allen really gifted his audience something unmistakably special. Owen Wilson was fantastic as was Marion Cotillard.

4/5 Stars

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