Existential Anguish: Longing for the Past in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson rubs shoulders with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, all while musing about man’s dissatisfaction with his place in time. Though viewers may consider such existential crises standard Allen fare, Owen’s turn as the deep, insecure writer departs from his usual role as the still insecure yet shallow bachelor. He broods, he vacillates, he jokes drily. We know its Allen who’s doing the talking, but with Wilson as the mouth it comes off lighter and more optimistic than usual.

Wilson’s Gil Pender is a Hollywood screenwriter and closeted novelist on vacation in Paris with fiancée Inez (Wedding Crashers costar and love interest Rachel McAdams) and her parents. As Inez and her wealthy parents live the high life at upscale restaurants, Gil feels an itching to go off and wander the streets of Paris, which he claims is most beautiful in the rain. This is trademark Allen—during an interview, he once mentioned that London’s rainy weather best suited his personality.

Gil in Rain


But with Gil, we see something more than Allen’s trademark melancholy. We see romanticism, the same kind that brings the fictitious Tom Baxter to life in Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo. As with the main character in that film, though, we see the ridiculousness of Gil’s romantic notions. How else but by sheer absurdity could Gil find himself pulled into a 1920s cab one night and transported to the world of Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Hemingway?

Gil, who has been nursing his novel for years without letting anyone read it, brings it to the house of Gertrude Stein where he meets Pablo Picasso’s charming young mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Though Inez can’t understand why Gil centers his novel on an antiquities shop filled with what she no doubt considers worthless junk, Adriana feels drawn to Gil and his pining for the past. As Gil returns night after night to 1920s Paris to continue seeing Adriana while meeting other notables like Dali (Adrien Brody) and the surrealists, Inez is secretly having an affair with Paul (Michael Sheen), her friend’s pedantic husband. Like Gil, we don’t want this pleasant dream to end. Like Gil, we know it must.

Looking at Allen’s work as a whole, it can be difficult to separate the man from the comic persona. He’s mastered the art of studied dissatisfaction, of not getting too excited because you know you’ll just spoil it later—or something will do it for you. As contrived as that might be, you can’t help but think that it has some basis in the real Allen, though maybe film is just his way of rising above the melancholy.

Midnight in Paris isn’t necessarily a happy movie, but it is an optimistic one. Gil has to let go of a few notions by the end of the movie, and his trip to France’s belle époque with Adriana reveals the impossibility of trying to be completely happy with the age  you were born in. However, Gil’s statement near the end of the movie is the most telling: in the same way that we long to escape our present by looking to the past, future generations may look to our own era as the best of times. Does this mean we should be happy living in our  time? Probably not. Allen revels in half-unhappiness, so it would be too much to say he’s telling us that things are fine. But we can’t let our longing for the past stop us living and advancing. We too will be longed for someday. Years from now, when person-to-person communication has become all but obsolete, our phones will sit inside antique shop windows, and passersby will stop and say, “How quaint those people were, at that time. How charming it all was!

Andres Oliver, Emory University
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