Nostalgia. Once upon a time it referred to a certain kind of mental illness, describing someone unable to live in his or her time. Now the word has been relegated to the cute, adorable, kitschy part of our lexicon. We think of nostalgia as a kind of benign obsession–only that’s not quite the word either, for nostalgia tends to describe something far more tame. Gil Pender, played brilliantly by Owen Wilson, suffers from a strange nostalgic notion that the 1920’s in Paris were far better than the present day. Through Gil’s adventures in the half-darkened streets of the City of Lights, Woody Allen weaves a fantastical tale completely unlike anything he has ever done. Midnight in Paris is simultaneously a fascinating portrait of a city, and a study of that particular kind of nostalgia that drives us to live in a past we never had and to forget a present that is passing us by.
Now before I say anything else about this wonderful film, I feel obligated to inform you that offering general plot details in this review could be considered a spoiler for this film specifically. Therefore, if you plan to see and want it to be a fresh experience, read no further. But know this: Midnight in Paris is easily among my top three or four films by Woody Allen, and is almost guaranteed to be in the top 15 films of the year. See it, then come back here to read the review.
Gil Pender is a writer, vacationing in Paris with his fiancee and her rich parents and trying to finish his novel. He loves Paris, or at least his idea of it, which is filled with visions of red windmills, glass pyramids, iron towers, and other postcard landmarks. But Gil’s love for the city is so infectious that it’s hard to begrudge him his fantasy.
He is so enamored with the city that when he and his fiancee run into an old flame of hers (played by Michael Sheen), he doesn’t notice the chemistry between them, and doesn’t even think of what we all suspect. When she wants to go dancing one night, and Gil is so drunk he needs to head home, he begins the greatest adventure of his life. A car is waiting to pick him up, and he is transported to his favorite time and place in history – 1920’s Paris.
Here Gil encounters a wide range of characters, from a brief glimpse of Cole Porter tickling those ivories, to a notoriously drunk and forward Zelda Fitzgerald and her unassuming husband F. Scott, to the outrageous Poppa Hemingway (before his beard). He meets Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody, in top form), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso, and his muse (Marion Cotillard). In one scene Gil meets Luis Bunuel, and gives him an idea for a film that Bunuel would end up directing in the 60’s called The Exterminating Angel.
Gil tries to show this world to his fiancee, but she wants nothing to do with it. She and her disapproving parents don’t even really see the city they are staying in. They prefer to stay home, or go to bars and clubs late at night. These are worthy things to do, and certainly part of a city’s character, but Gil begins to realize how he and his wife-to-be see the world through completely different lenses.
I recently waxed poetic about Woody Allen’s prior film You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger, describing it as his best film in so many years. Unfortunately I have to repeat that praise, as this film easily goes down in the books as one of Allen’s greatest achievements. Owen Wilson finds, for the first time in several years, a really profound comedic voice, one that balances his frenetic ramblings with piercing insights into human nature; in this way he is perhaps the best surrogate Woody Allen could have asked for, and I personally hope they continue to work together.
But it’s more than just an Owen Wilson vehicle; this film dives deep into our ability to obsess in order to forget. Gil Pender is accused of loving a fantasy in the opening lines, referring to his misplaced attraction to the city. But what we realize later in the film is that much like Bogart in Casablanca, all he ever had was Paris; it was his entire raison d’etre, and the lie he was living was the real fantasy. As the film closes and Gil walks through Paris as it drizzles, it’s clear that while his future is entirely up in the air, his present will no longer be forgotten for some ghost of the past.