(Warning: This post contains spoilers.)
When I watch Woody Allen movies, I always anticipate a dark twist. A relationship between two interesting people can’t last (Annie Hall). Life will always betray us and send us to the consolations of art (The Purple Rose of Cairo). A great artist can’t be happy (Bullets over Broadway) but a shallow murderer can (Crimes and Misdemeanors). Imagine my shock, then, at seeing unadulterated romanticism in Midnight in Paris, his most recent film. What has happened to the other Woody Allen?
A love letter to Paris, Midnight in Paris gives me an opportunity to relive my own love affair with the city.
When I was 13 (in 1964), my family spent a sabbatical year there. My brothers and I attended a small French school (Le Cours Alfred de Musset), and we passed under the Eiffel Tower four times a day to get there and back. (School was from 9-12 and from 2-5, with a two-hour break for lunch.) My brothers and I saw Paris as a giant playground. We knew the metro system practically by heart and we went everywhere. We made a habit of counting steps (to the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, up Notre Dame, up the Arc de Triomphe). We visited Napoleon’s Tomb and the catacombs and the Cluny Museum and (multiple times) the Louvre, where I always went to gaze at the large historical paintings of Delacroix. We went to a film every weekend, often at Henri Langlois’s Cinematheque. It was a magical year.
When I returned to Paris decades later (in 1995), it was a very different city. At first I didn’t like it. Beggars were in abundance (often Muslim women with babies), mediocre accordion players took over the subway cars and played until people gave them money, American-style fast food restaurants and supermarkets had sprouted up everywhere, and the streets were cleaned by little cars instead of men with brooms of bound sticks. I was struck by how many more nationalities were in evidence and was not surprised that I also encountered a march of supporters of racist politician Jean-Marie LePen chanting “La France aux Francais!” But different though it was, I started making adjustments and realized that I could fall in love with this Paris as well.
And that is Allen’s point. Midnight in Paris may be a celebration of Paris’s past, but ultimately it becomes a celebration of its present as well.
In the film, Gil Pendel, a Hollywood scriptwriter working on a novel, dreams of the 1920’s when American expats flooded Paris. Then suddenly he discovers that he can visit that period at midnight every night. He encounters Earnest Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Josephine Baker, Cole Porter, Djuna Barnes, Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel (to whom Gil gives the idea for Exterminating Angel), and T.S. Eliot. Gil falls in love with Adriana, one of Picasso’s mistresses.
But she, who is living in what for her is the present, romanticizes a previous golden age, Paris’s “La Belle Epoque” in the 1890’s. Suddenly the two of them are transported back to that earlier age and encounter Toulouse Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and the Can Can dancers at the Moulin Rouge. Degas, however, is discontented with the present and reminisces about an earlier golden age, the Renaissance.
All this nostalgia leads Gil to realize that ages seem golden only in retrospect. And if that is true, then it should be possible to look at Paris today and see it as a golden age–which is how Gil is regarding present-day Paris by the end of the film. For once, a Woody Allen film does not end with a sense of loss.
But there’s something not quite right in his depiction of contemporary Paris, which Allen sees through the filter of the past. The scenes he shows us are exactly those I remember from my childhood—the book stalls on the Seine, the street cafes in the Latin Quarter, the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, the classic monuments. To cite just one telling omission, there is no Algerian quarter. Gil may have emerged from his romantic notions of the past to face up to the hardships of the present–but the present looks just as dreamy as the 1920′s or “la belle epoque.”
Only once does a non-tourist perspective intrude: at one point Gil returns to the house where he has been talking with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and finds instead a Laundromat.
As my novelist friend Rachel Kranz points out, it’s not that much of a wrench for Gil to leave Adriana, who decides to make her home in the 1890′s, because he’s simply makes a lateral move. The woman he find at the film’s conclusion is no less fascinating and mysterious than Adriana. Unlike his crass American fiance, this woman loves to listen to Cole Porter and to take walks in the Paris rain.
Allen has given us a romantic cliche, a hack scriptwriter leaving his Malibu beach house and moving to the city of lights to work on his novel. I don’t have problems with this. What I find missing, however, is a final realization on Gil’s part that he will need to negotiate between his dreams of Paris and actual Paris. Neither one is truer than the other because our dreams have a reality to them no less than our waking hours. But if he had acknowledged the tension, Midnight in Paris would have been a more interesting film.
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