Andy Royston reviews a movie that fulfills the ultimate artists’ fantasy – going back in time to hang out with the greats.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Ernest Hemingway.
“I have a tendency to romanticize Paris. When the lights come up and it’s almost midnight, everything looks so pretty.” Woody Allen
Midnight In Paris
Around 1990, when studying for an art history exam, I decided to take off to Paris and get myself lost.
I stayed in a tiny guesthouse on the Quai de la Seine, way up in the 19e arrondissement. Close to where the artsy MK2 cinema is now. Back then though the area was deserted, and I took many a long walk along the canal into Paris on yet another trip back in time.
I was going through that phase that I think all who get lost in the arts go through. This modern age just isn’t my era – I should have been living in another time, say Vienna at the turn of the century, Paris in the 20s, or Laurel Canyon in ’67. So this trip was all about indulging the fantasy, spending time in the famous cafes and walking those fabled streets.
Midnight In Paris is a movie that makes this indulgence a reality.
Just like his Manhattan, Woody Allen opens the movie with a loving montage of Parisian scenes set to a Sidney Bechet score. You’ll see locations from other Paris movies, like the Left Bank shops of rue Galande (seen in Before Sunset), avenue des Camoens view of the Eiffel Tower ( Truffaut’s Le Dernier Metro), the columns of Parc Monceau (Gigi) and the double-decker Pont Bir Hakeim (Last Tango in Paris and, more recently, Inception). Woody was clearly having fun with this one.
Owen Wilson’s character Gil, a disenchanted Hollywood screenwriter working on a novel, takes a walk late at night, and winds up seated by the north-western steps of Église Saint-Étienne du Mont. There an elegant old 1920 Peugeot Landaulet whisks him away to a party on quai de Bourbon. With Cole Porter playing piano and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald his hosts, Gil realises something very odd is going on.
This parallel Paris is populated by a string of elegant bohemian characters including Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Woody Allen has been careful to make sure that the settings, right down to doorways and cafes are all authentic to the scenes, and some scenes – such as his encounter with Salvador Dali and his buddies are hilarious.
Allen makes sly references throughout. At one point Hemingway asks what Gil thinks of Mark Twain. Gil pauses and then replies, “I think you could make the case that Huck Finn is the root of all modern American literature.” Hemingway would write exactly that in The Green Hills of Africa. All part of the fun.
I won’t give away too much of the plot, but what makes this film is that Gil soon finds that all the artists back in 1920 also scorn their own era and achievements and long for an earlier time of REAL artistry. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. The conclusion is philosophical – Enjoy the air you’re a part of.
You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists, these lights. I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe. – Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) Midnight In Paris
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