Nostalgia is longing for a past that cannot be returned to—it’s passed. The word is used a lot in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, whose protagonist, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a dissatisfied Hollywood screenwriter, is writing a novel about the owner of a so-called nostalgia shop and wants to move to Paris so as to bask in a dream of what it would have been like to be a writer in Paris in the 1920s. The word nostalgia has also been used, and will be used plenty more, in all the exegesis surrounding the film. But in every case it’s used incorrectly.
My point here isn’t semantic; what I want to say is that Midnight in Paris, a great Woody Allen movie, is about something different and, in this context, more interesting than nostalgia, something that seems especially personal to Allen. It’s at the root of some of Allen’s most enduringly charming work, such as The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and if one were inclined, if could be suggested as the root of Allen’s attraction to much younger women both onscreen, as in the magisterial Manhattan (1979), and off. Midnight in Paris is about fantasy, about the life or the youth or the love you never had at all, yet somehow seems to be slipping away from you with every moment. What Gil longs for never existed, and when he somehow slips away into some realm where his fantasy’s made real, his passage from one place to another is delightfully left unexplained. What makes this very funny film resonate, what imbues its whimsy with wisdom, is its understanding that even in fantasy our longing for that distant, obscure thing must reach its terminal point, and we have to start again, negotiating with the real world, or some rough approximation of it.
Gil is engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdams). They’re “doing” Paris with her parents, and will be unexpectedly joined by Inez’s pedantic former professor Paul (Michael Sheen). Each of these characters are pragmatists who condescendingly dismiss Gil’s impulse to leave both the US and the movie business, and while they’re at it they dismiss his novel too. One night Gil goes off alone to wander the Paris streets. On a particularly lonesome bend, at the stroke of midnight, he’s picked up by a passing car and taken to someplace where everyone parties like its 1922. He’s repeatedly told he “looks lost,” so it seems he’s found the right generation. He meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, and eventually Man Ray, Buñuel, and Salvador Dalí, (Adrien Brody, who wipes the floor with Robert Pattinson and is wildly funny as he arbitrarily obsesses over the image of a rhinoceros). Gil also meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who wants to go into fashion, is mistress to the likes of Picasso and Braque, and seems drawn to Gil’s odd sort of melancholy cheerfulness (a combination perhaps only Wilson can conjure so naturally). Like Gil, she also idealizes the past—her belle époque is his 1920s. So their hypothetical romance has a hitch: neither is living in the present.
Wilson is wonderful, emotionally dexterous and taking full ownership of what might otherwise be just another Woody surrogate. Cotillard is deeply alluring. The only weak link is McAdams, though I’d guess it’s entirely Allen’s fault since he’s written Inez far too flatly, telegraphing her obvious incompatibility with Gil from scene one… Well, not quite scene one: Midnight in Paris opens with a lovingly prolonged series of images of the Paris, shot by Darius Khondji, set to Sidney Bechet’s ‘Si tu vois ma mére’, with no close-ups of faces and, highly uncharacteristically for Allen, no voice-over. This lovely foyer to the narrative is all about place, about senses and seduction, about how time just keeps passing us by, and about projecting fantasy onto reality. Which, sometimes, is the best way to remind yourself where you really are.