Nostalgia comes from a combination of two Greek words: “nóstos” meaning homecoming and “álgos” meaning pain or ache. Woody Allen must have felt this familiar ache while writing and directing Midnight in Paris, as the film’s lingering shots of the beautiful City of Lights suggest he may too dream of coming home to Paris.
Since 2006’s Scoop, Allen has been absent onscreen from his films but still imbues his words and characters with a trademark neurotic romantic charm. In Midnight, he instead channels this into Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson. Gil has developed a love for the most romantic city in the world, while his fiancée has not. As a writer in Paris, Gil naturally laments over the fact that he missed over what he believes to be the greatest time to be a writer – rubbing elbows with Hemingway, Picasso, Stein, and the Fitzgeralds. In one of the very first lines of the film, excitedly talking to his fiancée, Gil says “Imagine this town in the ’20s. Paris in the ’20s, in the rain. The artists and writers!” He is locked in disillusions of grandeur of how he would have fitted into the era. He wanders around the city focused on what living then would be, while everyone around him takes Paris as it is presented. There is plenty of history, but his fiancée and her friends just accept that the past is the past, and that they are happy with the lives they have. Gil, while on a midnight stroll, comes across a car that transplants him into a bar in the 1920’s. There he gets the chance to have the novel, that he is in the middle of writing, to critiqued by Gertrude Stein, as well as get love advice from Ernest Hemingway, and life advice from Dali. This is the opportunity that Gil had longed for. The chance to meet the very people that he romanticized the Roaring 20’s about. The parties, the people, the beauty, the love are all exactly how his imagination had pictured it.
One night, Gil is walking along the Seine river with Adriana, a former lover of Pablo Picasso played by Marion Cotillard, through another bit of magic, they are taken to Adriana’s ideal version of Paris, in the 1890’s, or “The Golden Age.” Gil and Adriana meet Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas. Over drinks, the conversation among the five of them is over what was the best era in history. Because Gil, Adriana, and the artists all come from different eras, everyone has a different idealized version of the past. Gil then realizes that romanticizing on “better times” is a vicious cycle. There is no way to be entirely content with the idea of the time we live in because of our knowledge of the past and our tendency to romanticize what we’ve never experienced through our contact with the art, music, and literature of that bygone era. One must accept this but make the best of the times they live in. Perhaps future generations will speak about how they long to live in the early 21st century with the great Gil Pender.
In the film, Allen forces Gil and his viewers to think about how they look at the past. Do we long for something for a time that we see as better than our own, “the golden age” or should we be present in the world around us and make it a golden age for those who come after? Was the past really that much better than the present? What defines the golden age? The 20’s in Paris were a cultural hub for artists, musicians, writers, and more but where did their influence come from?
The idea of escaping one’s present reality and longing for another reality or time is a common theme in many of Allen’s films. In Manhattan, Allen’s character chooses to pursue a relationship with a much younger woman because he won’t have to seriously consider a mature future with her, until he meets Diane Keaton’s character that changes his perspective. In Radio Days, Allen brings up nostalgia for his childhood and how his memories are tied up in the music and programs he and his family used to listen to in the 1940’s. In Match Point, the protagonist is desperately trying to escape his lower class roots by his involvement with a wealthy heiress and ultimately turns to murder when a mistake threatens to destroy his new social identity. In Vicky Christina Barcelona, the tightly wound Vicky briefly escapes the life that’s basically all set out for her by having a few moments of passion with machismo incarnate and tortured artist, Juan Antonio. Allen knows how to write characters, especially ones that reflect his personality. Gil is the Woody Allen of the Midnight in Paris. He is neurotic, jealous, living in a false reality.
Gil, who from the beginning of the film seems to have some tension with his fiancée, is looking to escape this reality where his fiancée has an intellectual crush on her friend, who is a “pseudo-intellectual,” and where he is unhappy with his previous work as a soulless Hollywood scribe so he is trying something new. Non-nostalgic people, his fiancée, her parents, and her friends surround Gil. Because they don’t see any nostalgia in the city, they are portrayed as unromantic, while Gil is seeing as idealistic and romantic for his views on the history of the “most romantic city in the world.”
Midnight in Paris is a story of nostalgic desire to be alive in an earlier, possibly greater, era becoming a reality. Woody Allen has a reputation for writing characters in a very unique but true fashion. He exposes insight about humanity with his character studies. He touches on a basic human feeling of longing for another time period, and brings his own spin to the film. Famous characters from literary history and the arts come to life and bring interesting insight into the human condition in the film as they do in their great opuses. The question at the end of the day is what time period are you nostalgic for?