Midnight In Paris

A Film by Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s 2011 film, Midnight in Paris, is a frothy, whimsical confection harkening back to fantasies like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Zelig, but in a sunnier, more relaxed mode. It is as if even Allen’s bleak anxieties and philosophical perspective must soften when falling upon the beautiful City of Lights. The universe may be a cold, violent, meaningless place, Gil Pender, the main protagonist of the film, muses. And yet, there is Paris. As he poetically declares,

“When you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe, that Paris exists… These lights… I mean, come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space, you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. I mean, for all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.”

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Fittingly, then, the movie opens with an extended montage of shots featuring Parisian streets and tourist attractions. These very realistic depictions have an uncompromising manner that, if they were any other city, would be unflattering, but in the case of Paris, further stress the majestic and sincere beauty of the old city.

We hear the delightful melody of Sidney Bechet’s “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère,” which puts the viewers in a comfortable, Parisian mood. We see the city in the sunshine, waking to the world; then rain drizzles over the quiet backstreets and crowded main spaces, refreshing and cool; as the sun sets, lights flare up, basking the city in warm, jovial rays.

The Journey Begins

Instantly, a connection is established between the audience and protagonist, as we hear Gil Pender’s voice declare an adoration of Paris through the title sequence. “Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain?” he queries, more particularly, a rainy Paris filled with the great artists and authors of the 1920s. Thus, we embark on our journey of empathy and hope for this romantic character whose dreams and potential go unrealized by his despairingly unimaginative fiancée.

Portraying the Allen figure and dressed in plaid shirt and khaki trousers, Owen Wilson plays Gil, a young Hollywood screenwriter and aspiring novelist best known for his skills at rewrites. He is a diffident, humorous man with great respect for high culture and a love of popular art but deeply suspicious of pretension and academic condescension.

Gil is visiting Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams). They are officially in love, but what Gil loves is Paris in the springtime. Gil is overwhelmed with the romance of the city that he feels, a romance Inez and her wealthy parents fail to perceive. “To know that Paris exists and anyone would choose to live anywhere else is a mystery to me,” he muses, but even living in Paris wouldn’t be enough. “I was born at the wrong time, into the wrong era,” he complains.

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Displaced in Time

For him, “when Paris was Paris” means the days of expatriate writers and artists like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Luis Buñuel. He dreams of someday writing a good novel and joining the pantheon of American writers whose ghosts linger in the very air he breathes.

“All that’s missing is tuberculosis,” sniggers Paul (Michael Sheen), an insufferable academic whom Gil regards with a testy unease. Inez, though, fawns over Paul’s erudition, and isn’t embarrassed when Paul remarks that, “Gil’s lament is nothing more than golden age thinking,” as if he were diagnosing a case of psoriasis instead of ridiculing a man’s soul.

Paul’s habit of prefacing every bit of data with “if I’m not mistaken” is a sign that, in the ways that count, he is. He is another classic Woody Allen type, the arrogant pseudo-intellectual, and the foil for Mr. Wilson’s passionate, self-deprecating schlemiel.

Ultimately, Gil wants to live in Paris. Inez enjoys living in an upper-class American suburb, like her parents. He evokes poetic associations with every cafe where Hemingway might once have had a Pernod, and she enjoys shopping and partying. It’s a suffocating setup, typical of Allen’s films. Gil seems condemned to a life of drudgery and constant yearning for the past.

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A Door in the Air

As unexpected as a sweet breeze on a muggy summer night, a door opens for Gil. One night, he wanders off alone, gets lost, and sits on some church steps in despair. As the bell harmoniously rings midnight, up rolls a large old Peugeot of revelers, who invite Gil to join them. Instantly, Paris comes alive. Gil gains admittance to a magnificent world of music and dancing, meets fascinating people, and participates in heady conversations. Allen does not explain this magic, and such an explanation is unnecessary. Nor do we have to decide if what happens is real or imaginary. It doesn’t matter.

The viewer is swept along with Gil into the Jazz Age, plunging into bars and parties and encountering great legends. Gil’s novel is about a man who ran a nostalgia shop, and here he is in the time and place for which he’s most nostalgic. The crowd Gil meets in three successive nights include Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Picasso, Dali, Cole Porter, Man Ray, Luis Bunuel, and even T. S. Eliot. Allen assumes some familiarity with their generation, displaying a finely tuned cultural literacy. Zelda is playfully daffy, Scott is hopelessly in love with her and doomed by that same love, and Hemingway consistently speaks in formal sentences of great masculine portent.

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Double Life

Gil now lives a double life. By day, he goes shopping with Inez and her parents and visits museums with Inez and her friends. By night, Gil returns to the church steps. At the witching hour, he’s drawn back into a lost world of shared, ambitious artistic endeavor, becoming the confidant and drinking companion of the haughty Hemingway, the apt pupil of the authoritative Stein, the savior of the troubled Zelda from suicide in the Seine, and even the provider of plots for Buñuel. He is delighted when Stein (Kathy Bates) offers to look at his novel. On his first visit to her salon, he meets a lovely woman, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who intrigues him despite, or perhaps because of, her romantic history. Adriana mirrors Gil, in that she too is discontented with her present, the 1920s, and longs for la Belle Epoch. She and Gil grow closer as the film progresses.

Interestingly, Allen balances Adriana, not with Inez, but with a young antique dealer whom Gil encounters in a Parisian flea market. In doing so, Allen balances past and present. Gil must choose between Adriana, who has been model and mistress to Modigliani, Braque, and Picasso, and a yearning for the past, with Gabrielle, who shares a love of Cole Porter, and her contentment to live in the present while cherishing the past.

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The Journey Ends

In the end, Gil breaks off his engagement with Inez and his relationship with the fantastical world of the 1920s, and the movie closes with a shot of him and Gabrielle walking together in the rain, illuminated by the shimmering city lights. 

Midnight in Paris concerns itself with the allure of the past, of times and places that loom large in our imagination, glorious and delightful. It’s also about the illusion of perspective: the past looks romantic from our vantage point, and if we traveled there, we might contrive to bring that perspective with us, although to the people living then, the past was just the present. As Adriana reveals, they look further back to other golden ages.

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Common Dissatisfaction

In the end, the past is a foreign country full of strangers; we almost always misremember it, embellishing here and eliminating there.

Robert Browning’s poem, “Memorabilia,” aptly portrays the idea of cultural nostalgia. It begins with a gasp of astonishment: “Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?” It concludes rather nonchalantly: “Well I forget the rest.” The past always seems more vivid and substantial than the present but then evaporates with the cold touch of reality. The allure of the “golden days” stems from the fact that we were not there.

In a delightful sequence reminiscent of Gil’s own experience, Adriana and Gil receive a carriage ride back to la Belle Epoch, where they meet Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge. They discover that Toulouse-Lautrec’s drinking companions, Degas and Gauguin, look back nostalgically to the Renaissance as the real golden age.

Everyone—Gil, Adrianna, Degas—is caught in a sighing dissatisfaction with their era. Whenever it is, the here and now is overshadowed by a remembrance of lost or faded glory, some sunny age before which present realities are inadequate and unsatisfactory substitutes. Midnight in Paris explores this conceit, so ingrained in the psyche of every artistic person, the belief that you were born too late, or would be happier or understood more wholly had you lived in another, more romantic era.

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The “Prufrock” Syndrome

Even as Allen paints a beautiful picture of the 1920s, he throws in an occasional odd note. For instance, Gil cries out upon meeting T. S. Eliot, “Prufrock is my mantra!” Now, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a statement of the very ennui—the perception of a diminished world unable to satisfy a hungering sensibility—that afflicts Gil.

Allen treats this condition gently and wryly. He is, for many people, an object of nostalgic affection, just as Cole Porter is for Gil. That shared love of Porter’s music enables Gil to forge a connection in the present (and future) with Gabrielle is a sign that his fetishizing of bygone days has been based on a mistake. Paris is perpetually alive, not because it houses the ghosts of the famous dead, but because it is the repository and setting of much of their work. The purpose of history is not to carry us into the past but rather to animate, enliven, and inform the present.

“I Wish I Could Go Back In Time”

Allen takes a common human misconception that has gone mostly unquestioned in modern cinema, dissecting it to reveal the humor and divine ridiculousness of such a thought. By showing us that even if we could visit a time that holds irresistible charm in our minds, we would find it unsatisfactory because it is the feeling of unfilled hopes in the present that makes us desire a different world, he instills a profound sense of relief in the audience.

Relief that we are not alone in our longing, and that we can finally confront the notion and realize that, if we followed our dreams, our place in time would be unimportant; escapism is, at best, only a temporary shelter whenever the idea of making our mark on history becomes too intimidating. I laughed hysterically throughout the film, but I also left feeling that a hefty weight had been lifted from my mind.

The Illusions of Time

Time and memory sift the past, retaining what is golden and sweet while leaving behind the chaff. In our own day, perhaps, we are more conscious of the chaff, while the good wheat remains half-hidden, not fully appreciated. Time will reveal it more fully to our children.

Midnight in Paris concludes that we should embrace the seemingly inartistic present and be happy to live as an individual in this great mess of time that we have arranged into different eras and epochs. It’s about seeing through the illusion of nostalgia and yet not being disillusioned—about cherishing the past, while living in the present.

Gil learns that every generation tends to look longingly to the past as a “golden age.” He realizes he should find richness in his life in the present rather than long for it in the past. Also, he comes to understand that sacrificing a comfortable situation and working toward a risky but potentially rewarding goal can sometimes be the wisest decision.

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The Role of Art

Tolkien once wrote about how fantasy can reveal rather than obscure reality:

“By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and the Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.”

Such a speech would cause the nihilism-prone Allen to choke, and yet, in this film, Allen permits Stein to claim that “the job of the artist is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” In that cautious sentiment, Allen allows the audience, and perhaps himself, the luxury of hope.

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An Unfulfilled Yearning

In The Weight of Glory, Lewis meditates on the unfulfilled yearning of all men to find a home for their souls in this world. The search is futile, he explains, for we are not meant for this world at all.

“In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; … the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.  Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.”

It becomes easy for us, when confronted with the apparent decline of Western culture, to wish for Gil’s magic Peugeot and complain about modernity. We heartily condemn the decadence of our culture and yearn for “those glorious days.”

We are right in recognizing the continuing descent of man. Throughout history, all human civilizations, maybe beginning well, gradually but inexorably move toward perdition. As Lewis would write in another place, progress often means turning around because you’re on the wrong road; stepping forward involves a reversal, a looking back at our cultural heritage and an honest effort to restore it. 

The Goodness of Discontent

And yet, this dissatisfaction with our age reveals that this world is not our home. But Lewis claims that beauty lies not in the past.

“If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found [beauty] itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them… These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.”

We should neither seek our home in this world nor the past. We would only find ourselves longing for more distant times and places if we could go back. So, no matter how crazy it sounds, both Woody Allen and C. S. Lewis are right. As much as the past can teach us, we can never live there. To assume that we should is to encourage an insatiable longing and escapist fantasy. To rightly and truthfully understand and teach the wisdom, lessons, achievements, forming power of the past on our civilization, we must distinguish between the transcendental and the temporal.

Lewis suggests that all creations of man fall short of permanence: “For [the beauties of the past] are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” We must remember that we are strangers in a fallen world. Our true longing will only be satisfied in “our own far-off country,” of which human culture is a mere echo.

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Eight Issues of Man

Midnight in Paris discusses many of the eight issues of man. Allen’s nihilism answers that there is nothing outside or above us—no God or divine being, no Creator, no supernatural. Only the material universe exists, governed by random change and evolutionary developments, purposeless and closed in a naturalistic box. Human beings must fashion their own meaning, perhaps, as Gil suggests, by building and filling cities such as Paris with light, love, and laughter. The historical line began with a big bang and will continue until the world fizzles out. Humans come from apes, and our only destiny is to evolve continually. Our best hope is to create a purpose in our present lives, thus quelling our desire for “something else,” but not satisfying it.

Human relationships are complicated, and love can be dooming (as Fitzgerald well knows and Gil nearly discovers). We live, love, and die, in an endless cycle, hoping to gain something from our relationships, society, and work. Some people profit by having brief love affairs (Inez and Paul), others by finding a common liking for a particular artist.

Subjectivity & Nihilism

Human beings define Goodness, Truth, and Beauty for ourselves, which means that they are relative opinions, subjective to individuals (Gil thinks the ‘20s are perfect, but Adriana longs for la Belle Epoch, and Degas wishes for the Renaissance, and, while each is adamant that their age is the most beautiful, it is never discussed if any of them, or all of them, are right).

Beyond this life, everything just ends. As sure as one age will follow the next, so will one human life follow another. Death is the end; no afterlife, no final judgment (remember, there is no objective morality for the nihilist), no culminating restoration of the world. One day we are here, another day we cease to exist.

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In conclusion, we can learn many lessons from Midnight in Paris, not just about time, but about desires common to all human hearts. Ultimately, our responsibility as Christians is to embrace the time in which we live, for the Lord declares that we were created “for such a time as this,” to perform the “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Est. 4:14; Eph. 2:10).

We should “rejoice in the Lord always and “find the peace which transcends all understanding” (Phil. 4:6-7). And we know, as believers, that this world is not our home. We work heartily and wait patiently for the day when our Lord and Savior will return, riding on the clouds, to restore, redeem, and unite all things with Himself. He will create a new heaven and a new earth, and “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

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