thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Midnight in Paris: Living In the Past Tense

In time travel, Woody Allen on June 17, 2011 at 1:32 am

Midnight in Paris: Living In the Past Tense

Sarah Todd

The past was better, wasn’t it? Women wore jewelry that jangled when they walked down the hall, and had a way of leaning against a doorframe that suggested unimaginably wonderful creations were just in the next room. Men were Don Draper or Butch Cassidy or any idol with a secret and a hard jaw. People laughed harder; paintings glowed brighter; typewriters clattered with enough noise to make reporters and novelists feel as if their words were durable and solid. The work you put into things didn’t just disappear.

Romanticizing the past is a pastime for the ages in Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris. Gil (Owen Wilson), an American screenwriter-turned-aspiring-novelist, vacations in Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her family. Whereas Inez and her parents consume Parisian culture as dutifully and dispassionately as if they were taking their vitamins, Gil falls in love with the city and its history. He loves Paris now, but even more than that he loves Paris as he imagines it was in the 1920s, when Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and other luminaries rubbed elbows in cafes and dance halls. Eventually, Gil manages to wish himself straight into the 1920s. At first perplexed, then delighted by his luck, he befriends his heroes and falls in love with a dewy French flapper named Adriana (Marion Cotillard, who specializes in faraway gazes and precisely the kind of doorframe-leaning that could lead a man to switch eras).

Unfortunately for Gil, Adriana doesn’t share his infatuation with the 1920s. Instead, she feels she really belonged in the Belle Epoque. Naturally, she wishes herself there, bringing Gil along with her, where they discover that Degas and Gaugin would prefer to have been alive in the Renaissance. Gil realizes that no one is satisfied with his or her own present, and it’s time for him to return to his home century (though not to his fiancé, who’s been cheating on him with Wesley Snipes from 30 Rock).

There’s no mistaking Midnight‘s moral about the fallacies of rearview-mirror thinking: Gil explains it in detail to Adriana, who promptly shrugs it off and opts to remain in the Belle Epoque to design ballet costumes. However, the more interesting aspect of the movie’s travels through time is how friendly everybody in the past is. Gil can barely string two words together when he meets the Fitzgeralds at a party, but they take him under their wing anyway; Ernest Hemingway has a conversation with Gil for five minutes before offering to pass his manuscript along to Gertrude Stein; Degas and Gaugin offer Adriana a job before they’ve even caught her name. Who knew the past could be so welcoming?

Of course, part of this generosity of spirit is a plot device: nobody wants to see a movie where Gil travels to Paris in the 1920s only to stand on the outskirts of every party, trying to fish an olive out of his martini glass. But Midnight In Paris is also making an argument about community and isolation. All of the characters who long to live in the past necessarily feel a bit out-of-place in the present; they imagine that if they lived in the past, they would be among people who would understand them. A sparkling community of artists and thinkers, where people take up one another’s causes (and lovers) without a second thought, lies just out of reach.

Gil is lonely in the present. When asked what he and Inez have in common, he struggles before landing on their mutual love of naan. For the most part, in the present, he’s either writing alone in his room, wandering the streets by himself, or daydreaming over dinner. His modern isolation seems fairly typical in the age of bowling alone, which is why his few moments of connection in the present—particularly with Gabrielle, a Frenchwoman working at a flea market—stand out onscreen. When he visits Versailles with Inez and her friends, nobody wants to hear what he has to say. At Gertrude Stein’s revolving-door apartment in the 1920s, everybody does.

Midnight in Paris ends with Gil and Gabrielle walking home together across a bridge. (Time travel movies always end with the protagonist returning to the present, though their friends—Adriana, or Doc in Back to the Future—sometimes stay behind.) Gabrielle’s occupation at the flea market suggests she shares Gil’s appreciation for the past, as well as an affinity for Cole Porter and walking in the rain. We’re meant to think the two are about to start a romance, and maybe they will. But at the very least, Gil’s not alone in the present anymore. Once he stops idealizing the past, he finds a friend in his own time.

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