“In Love With a Fantasy”
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is stylish and whimsical. Like Amelie, it is a love letter to Paris, albeit far less French. It is clearly an American’s love letter to Paris, rather than a familial Parisian one. Thematically, this suits the story well—it is a dream world for Gil (Owen Wilson) a Hollywood hack screenwriter who wants to finish his novel and establish himself as a respectable literary figure. He also yearns for the grandeur of the past. His fiancé, Inez, finds his talk of moving to Paris and leaving the security of Hollywood absurd, and spends most of the story trying to ignore him.
Lost one night in the backstreets of Paris, he is invited into an old car and driven right into the past! It is here that he meets some of his idols—Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso. There is a giddy charm to all of this—the 1930s-eque dialogue and set design, the glowing cinematography—as if the film’s had a little too much champagne. Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald is particularly wonderful. She somehow manages to be simultaneously brash and classy. I wanted her to take my arm and drag me into all sorts of mischievous adventures.
So Gil finds himself thrust into this Bohemian paradise, full of artistic giants, booze, and debauchery. It is madness and it’s wonderful! It does, strangely, remind me of Inception. Where Inception made you dizzy with the notion of dreams within dreams, Midnight in Paris whisks you away to pasts within the past.
The story is heavy on its point. When Adriana (Gil’s lover—which he borrowed from Picasso and Hemingway) takes him to the Belle Epoch, a club named after the golden age that takes them back even further in time, Gil discovers that she too has found a porthole into a past that she finds more valuable than the present. Gil realizes that this perspective isn’t the most rewarding. He decides to find meaning and satisfaction in his own time period. This idea resonates with me, but I was irritated by how explicit the point is made. In Gil’s speech to Adriana, he basically tells us, in no uncertain terms, the moral of the story. I think his dialogue could have been subtle. After all, we can see that the situation is madness—we don’t need Woody Allen to explain it to us.
And then there is the problem of Inez. There is a tendency in recent American comedies for men to be engaged or married to women who just don’t understand them. What makes this trope particularly distasteful is the mean-spirited and emasculating qualities of these women. I would have preferred that the story be more sympathetic towards Inez, but the film makes her out to be dismissive and hostile. It wouldn’t have been so difficult to give her a little humanity—Gil, with his constant rhapsodizing about the superior glory of the past, is annoying after all. She could have been a grounding influence, rather than condescending and abusive. She could have been the one to finally root him to the present! And really, the part of Inez is a waste of Rachel McAdams who is too charming and provocative to get stuck with such a one-dimensional role.
The story would have more tension, and Gil’s dilemma—should he choose Adriana or Inez?—would seem more engaging if Inez was actually a viable option. If we were able to understand why he’s engaged to her, then Gil’s dilemma would be real. The audience is just waiting for him to admit that Inez is a soul-sucking bitch. The French women—any of the French women—are more charming, and supportive than this woman he plans to marry. It is this polarity that makes the film’s attitude towards women so juvenile. The only challenging woman in Gil’s life is made out to be a harpy. The admirable women are meek and fawning—Adriana and the little shopkeeper girl he meets on a market street—or they are bold and uncompromising—Gertrude Stein—but just happen to adore every aspect of him.
Why can’t Gil fall in love with a challenging woman? Why can’t she be strong yet supportive? Why does the suggestion of a backbone imply that a woman is an unreasonable and destructive force? I would have preferred that Gil have an affair with Zelda! At least she seems to have a life of her own that doesn’t require either tearing down men or idolizing them. She’s the only real woman in the whole film—too real for our protagonist, who can only understand woman in terms of how they build-up or undermine his ego. Inez is right when she remarks that he’s “in love with a fantasy.” Apparently, so is Woody Allen. It is this fantasy that gives the film its charm. Alas, I have a tendency to deconstruct those experiences that I find engaging, and frequently risk the discovery of distasteful attitudes lurking beneath charm.
Well, there is no need to end on a sour note. The film was a still a treat. It is fanciful and alluring, and a cut above most romantic comedies.
Midnight In Paris (2011)
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Stars: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates