I saw Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris a few days ago. It opened in Paris while I was there, and because I knew it was set to open soon at home, I waited to see it. It felt right seeing it here, feeling a little wistful, like Allen's protagonist. Like Allen's Manhattan, Midnight in Paris is a valentine to a great city. And although I initially referred to it as a beautiful trifle, I've found myself thinking about the film over the past few days much more than a simple trifle would warrant.
Walking through present-day Paris, screenwriter and aspiring novelist Gil Pender pines for the '20s, the "Golden Age" when Paris was host to a coterie of artists and writers that included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso. Gil idealizes this past, and, luckily for him, is able to transport himself there each night, courtesy of a magical taxi that appears at the stroke of midnight.
Allen has great fun with this part of the film, and there are some wonderful set pieces as Gil hits the high spots with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and has his novel critiqued by "Gert." (Owen Wilson is terrific as Gil, by the way. He gives the character a warmth and charm that perfectly suits the tone of the film).
The present day holds little allure for Gil. He's dragged around Paris by his shallow, materialistic fiancée Inez, who belittles him, dismisses his artistic efforts, and deceives him with the pedantic professor husband of a friend. Allen doesn't hide the contempt he feels for her or for her equally repulsive parents and the obnoxious professor (a fun turn by Michael Sheen). In a film as generous as this one, this disdain could be jarring, but Allen gives the parents and the professor such hilarious dialogue and uses them so well as foils for Gil's good nature that it doesn't ring false.
So what does this have to do with intentional living? The more I thought about the movie, the more taken I was with how cleverly Allen reveals his themes, and in a story that revolves around time, how timeless they are.
I suspect that most of us bump up against these issues regularly. I know I do. Not about moving to Paris, of course (although I never rule that out ;-), but about listening closely to my heart first when I'm looking for answers; about gratefully embracing my life just as it is; and about pursuing my own dreams, not anyone else's. And because the story is packaged in a box of bonbons (I still have these on the brain from Paris!), Allen isn't heavy-handed about "messages."
By film's end, Gil has broken his engagement and decided to move to Paris and write. He sees that idealizing the past is a dead end. Certainly, it's kept him from from appreciating the present. The catalyst for his decision is his love interest from the 20s, Adriana (a perfect Marion Cotillard), with whom, in a story-within-a-story, he time-travels to the turn of the 19th century. The Belle Époque is Adriana's ideal, her "golden age." She decides to stay, and wants Gil to stay with her. Gil's response is Allen's argument for the value of living in one's own time, but Adriana doesn't buy it, and Gil returns to the modern day alone.
Romantic love, Allen seems to say, isn't sufficient reason to give up a moment in time that's unique to you, a present that invites your dreams for the future.
He also suggests that Gil's focus on the past kept him in mayor denial about the truth of his relationship with Inez. There's an echo of this when Gertrude Stein tells him that she and Hemingway think his novel shows real promise. But hey were surprised, she says. that the novel's hero doesn't realize that his fiancée is sleeping with the "pedantic professor."
When Gil tells Inez and her parents that he's staying in Paris and not getting married, Allen lets us know, with a throw-away line, that this isn't just another version of Gil's idealization of Paris. If he should find later that Paris isn't right for him, Gil says, he'll leave. We understand that he's staying because it's the right place for him right now, not because he's compelled by a romantic notion.
It's not that Allen is mining deep ground here --it's not the nature of a film as ethereal as this one. But he's smart about getting both Gil and and the audience where he wants us to be. Midnight in Paris is a wonderful film --not a great one, but a delight nonetheless. And, although it took me a few days to realize it, it's a thoughtful one, too.