Wow, it’s another Owen Wilson movie! To contrast his vapid performance in Marry Me, I want to talk about the literary homage that is Midnight in Paris.
Summary: This 2011 Woody Allen feature (I’m separating the art from the artist) takes us on Gil Pender’s journey as a struggling novelist whisked back in time to 1920s Paris. With an A-list cast playing Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Dali, Picasso, and Stein, Gil has the time of his life. He also falls for Picasso’s girlfriend Adriana, portrayed by the incomparable Marion Cotillard. He eventually realizes he can’t live in the past forever, and returns to embrace the beauty of the present moment.
Let’s start with a personal tie-in. I first saw this movie fairly soon after it came out, but most of it went over my head. When I went to Paris on my fall 2019 study abroad, I rewatched the movie. The top picture is a still from the movie, and I took the bottom one in the same spot. That was fun, but otherwise I was not drawn in by the “romance” of Paris the same way Gil was.
Gil Pender is a Hollywood hack. He calls himself this after a lucrative screenwriting career has left him no time to pursue “serious literature”. From my perspective, as a writer beginning to build her career, there’s no law against having a day job and a creative hobby on the side. Gil is at a career crossroads which I can empathize with, but his pretentiousness and indecision are wearing. It’s clear that Woody Allen has written a self-insert fan fiction of A Moveable Feast. (I can say that as someone who read the book.) Later in the film, Gil mentions that he’s carried Valium since he got engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdams), which is a telling sign that the crossroads extends to this impending marriage.
Adriana is an art groupie, as Gil calls her during their first interaction, when she describes her affairs with Modigliani, Basque, and Picasso. Adriana is a mirror of Gil. Where he romanticizes the literature of 1920s Paris, she idealizes the art and aesthetic of La Belle Epoque, the turn of the 1900s. Adriana is essentially a 1920s version of Halsey (pre-baby). Adriana is played by Marion Cotillard, who I respect as an actress. Her role in Inception next to Leo DiCaprio proved she can play complicated women, whereas this role allows her to gently lead a whimsical story. Her ultimate choice allows her path to diverge from Gil’s in a sharp and sad but also beautiful way. Gil learns the lesson that she refuses to see.
Inez and her parents are driving Gil back to the past. Rachel McAdams plays a nagging, controlling buzzkill that the audience is meant to despise. Her pleas for Gil to get his head out of the clouds would be more reasonable if her position in the story wasn’t so pigeonholed.
In stark contract to the uptight 2010 family, the freewheeling 1920s artist crew is amazing to watch. Allison Pill steals the show, with a tender and honest portrayal of Zelda Fitzgerald. Tom Hiddelston isn’t at his best as her witless husband, but he broke out the next year as Loki (eventually working with Owen Wilson again), so it worked out for him. Adrien Brody provides much needed comic relief as Dali, and Kathy Bates has an exasperated maternal quality as Gertrude Stein, the unofficial leader of the ragtag bunch.
The classic sights of Paris are in heavy rotation, and the pastel saturation is classic Woody Allen. The two eras are clearly distinguished, mostly because Gil visits the 1920s only at night. The wood paneling interiors and short dresses and well-pressed gentlemen’s suits carry all the glamour and elegance viewers could want. For literature nerds who want to pick the minds of the greats, this movie is a treat.
The opening montage of the movie lingers over iconic Parisian sights three minutes too long for my taste, but the first and second act hum along. Between the second and third act, there’s a bizarre and unexplained plot twist involving a diary, and even in such a whimsical movie, I couldn’t make this one logically work.
Much like Eat Pray Love (a supposed journey of self-discovery) is structured around three men, each act of this movie is marked by a woman. Inez dominates the first act, Adriana shines throughout the second act, and the third act is gently illuminated by record store employee Gabrielle. Gabrielle is less a fully developed character than an idealized projection, almost a reward to Gil for deciding to stay in the present.
Like most romantic comedies, the logic of this movie somewhat falls apart between the second and third act, although the poignant lesson still shines through.
I recommend this movie for any and all literature nerds, particularly fans of the Paris Renaissance. I have to give this a 10/10 for the important themes, the enchanting aesthetic, and the two endearing, complicated, whimsical leads. Grab a nice French vintage wine and enjoy the ride through time. If you watched it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.