Midnight in Paris
Special to The History Place
In his best film in years, Writer/Director Woody Allen plays very creatively with a common human desire – common especially to historians and history buffs. Which of us hasn’t wished for the gift of time travel, the ability to experience first hand the era or age about which we’ve read and perhaps even written? In this romantic comedy, Gil (Owen Wilson), a Hollywood screenwriter struggling with his first novel, gets this precious gift. Vacationing in Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her wealthy parents, Gil faces a future in Malibu. Many might think this is not a bad fate: a successful writing career, marriage to a beautiful young woman, in-laws with seriously big bucks.
However, as Allen once observed in the context of his own family circumstances, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” Gil wants to be a novelist, and not what he believes he is, “a Hollywood hack.” For Gil, Paris in the Twenties marked a Golden Age. He yearns for it, and since this is a movie, and not real life, his wish is granted. Lost at midnight, alone on a set of stone steps along the Seine, Gil is offered a lift in what he assumes is a beautifully restored antique Peugeot. The car takes him to a party. Whom does he meet there? Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald for starters. “What a coincidence that you should have the same names as…”
By the time Gil meets Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, he gets it. The next few nights find him waiting at the same set of steps for the same Peugeot to pick him up. Night after night he meets more members of the Lost Generation: Pablo Picasso, Salvatore Dali, T. S. Elliot – the list goes on and on. Stein (Kathy Bates) agrees to read his novel. All this is marvelous, but what really draws him back, night after night, to the detriment of his relationship with fiancée Inez and her folks, is Picasso’s mistress, Adriana (played by Marion Cotillard, who made her cinematic mark as Edith Piaf)
Ironically, Adriana, who had a pre-Picasso affair with Modigliani, and who is being pursued by Hemingway as well, harks back to Paris’s Belle Époque of the 1890s, as the “Golden Age” she yearns to experience. Paris in the Twenties to her is “dull.”
Woody’s point is obvious. The poet E. A. Robinson captured the same point perfectly in his 1910 classic, “Miniver Cheevy,” which Inez’s friend Paul, a professor, mentions in lampooning Gil.
Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.
Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.
If Allen’s theme is as old as the human heart, it’s his masterful retelling that makes it fresh and enjoyable for the audience. The casting is perfect. For instance, he gives us Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali. “I am Dali! I am Dali!” In what for me is one of the best vignettes of the film, Gill bumps into Dali, and fellow surrealists Man Ray and Luis Bunuel, in a café. Gil explains that he is from the future, and they accept this revelation as readily as if he told them he was from Philadelphia.
The questions posed by Allen’s plot are many: Will Gil sleep with Adriana? Will he remain in the Twenties or return to the 21st Century? And, if he does return, will he marry Inez and settle down in Malibu, or stay behind in Paris and finish the novel? Or maybe it’s Inez, encouraged by her Tea Party papa, who will dump Gil for her professor-pal, who has been filling Gil’s vacuum. As Gil spends his days rewriting his novel along lines suggested by Gertrude Stein, then disappears every night down Paris alleys “for inspiration,” he and Inez become painfully aware of their fundamental differences. But, Adriana, nursing her own illusions about the age of Paul Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec, doesn’t feel like quite the right soul mate either.
How Gil works all this out is the heart and soul of this charming and intriguing recapitulation of the Miniver Cheevy tale. In the end, we history wonks are able to simultaneously envy Gil his adventures and appreciate our own present days a bit better.
Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking.
Jim Castagnera, a freelance journalist and practicing attorney, is the author of 18 books, including Al Qaeda Goes to College (Praeger 2009) and Ned McAdoo and the Molly Maguires (Amazon 2011).