Film Review: Midnight in Paris | Woody Allen Shows Life is a Little Unsatisfying

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“Nostalgia is denial—denial of the painful present…the name for this denial is golden age thinking—the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in—it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”This quote appears early on in Woody Allen’s 2011 Academy Award winning film Midnight in Paris. In the film, screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is having trouble working on his first novel while vacationing in Paris with his fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. His novel, about a man who works in a nostalgia shop, is met with criticism by those Gil meets in 2010. However, when Gil finds himself pulled into a car and sent back to the 1920s, he gets a heavy dose of nostalgia when he meets famous artists and writers such as Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston).

The film comes across as both an indulgent fantasy and a moral tale for the viewer. To some, the magical realist adventure Gil finds himself in is an incredible opportunity. He gets to meet famous members of The Lost Generation and they get to look over his work. On the other hand, he begins to become more detached from his present. His relationship with his fiancé begins to crumble at a much more rapid pace, and the only people he shows any real connection to in 2010 are a museum guide (former First Lady of France Carla Bruni) and an antique shop girl (Léa Seydoux), two people who can speak about nostalgia and understand the appeal Gil sees in past eras.

Allen’s film does present the problems with nostalgia and dreaming for a previous era. Gil hears the above quote early on in the film but ignores it because the speaker is a pedantic pseudo-intellectual. Gil has to discover and realize the truth in the statement on his own. It’s great that Gertrude Stein can review his novel, but he has to return to 2010 eventually.

This is why Adriana (Marion Cotillard) proves to be an important part of the film. Adriana is an artist’s girlfriend, continually dating artists and being their muses, but never really finding her own place in this world. Gil and Adriana grow close because she longs for a different era too, the Belle Époque in this case. Even when they get the chance to visit the Moulin Rouge and meet Henri de Toulousse-Lautrec, this is where they find a divide.

Gil, having jumped to two different eras, is unable to enjoy the Belle Époque like Adriana, but she is able to more easily fit in with the era. When Adriana elects to stay behind, Gil is forced to leave her behind, accepting that she is unable to move on from her nostalgia, but learning that he can move beyond his love of the 1920’s and accept the contemporary. Because the film never establishes exactly the rules of the time traveling, Gil can easily go back if he needs to, but now he doesn’t have to.Although this means that Gil and Adriana can never be together, this does highlight many of the issues with nostalgia that people often forget. Even if you go to a “better time,” there are aspects of that time period you often forget. In the film, most of the female characters in the 1920’s were simply objects to admire and sexualize. Zelda Fitzgerald is seen as someone the other characters don’t take seriously.

This is especially worse considering the recent scandal relating to Allen, with allegations that he molested his adopted daughter when she was young. Most of the female characters are supporting roles and are there to be used in the service of male characters. It’s that bravado that most people forget about when they think of the decade, and it’s something that is especially hard to think about when you think of the allegations. Adriana shows the most resilience of the female characters in the film because she chooses to leave a man to make her own life in the Belle Époque. She might be choosing to live in nostalgia, but she’s at least removing herself from people who want to possess her.

This film is very fascinating to look at three years after it was released. It does have a very well written story and the film does portray Paris with a real loving eye. It’s just a shame some of the gender politics become problematic when real life issues with the director and writer of the film come to light. Still, I think with the real life controversy removed,Midnight in Paris is a good film. I think anyone with a passion for nostalgia will enjoy it, as long as they remember to make something with the present.

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