Road to the Oscars Part 2: Midnight in Paris

Whitney Bashaw, Editor-in-Chief

“Midnight in Paris,” which is nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, Art Direction, Directing and Best Original Screenplay, is being lauded as Woody Allen’s best creation in recent years, having hit a stale note with the strangely fetishistic films “Vicki Christina Barcelona” and “Whatever Works.” This is a grand and glorious comeback if there ever was one.
Considering the Oscar nominees this year, it seems the relationship between the US and France is warming up. “The Artist,” a powerhouse of a film, is a French and American production and so is “Midnight in Paris,” which, as the name suggests, takes place in Paris. Excepting a few — most notably the always-enchanting Marion Cotillard as Adriana, the spritely muse of Picasso — the lead cast is comprised of American actors.
Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson, a screenwriter longing to be a novelist, is on holiday in Paris with his fiancé Inez, (Rachel McAdams). Wilson’s character is caught in the wistful bear-trap of nostalgia. Not wanting to sell his soul to the Hollywood juggernaut, he wants terribly to be a part of the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s, the bohemian renaissance of ex-patriot American writers. This longing leads him to travel between two worlds: that of modern day Paris and the Paris of the 1920s. This gives Allen the liberty to wax poetic with an orgiastic ensemble of literary and artistic historical figures while also supplying commentary on our contemporary situation, dealing with issues of materialism and nostalgia in the digital age.
As is to be expected of Allen, the dialogue between characters is filled to the brim with clever witticisms and pessimistic musings on human relationships and interaction. It is no surprise it is a powerful contender in the Best Original Screenplay category, as the narrative moves along seamlessly. In Gertrude Stein’s famous salon, Wilson’s character discusses art and genius with the likes of Hemmingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Picasso and a cameo from Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, among others. Gil follows them through old Parisian haunts and dance halls, discovering things about himself in the process. Alongside him in these midnight romps is the bewitching Adriana, a French girl with the same nostalgic fantasies as Gil but for an even older era.
The themes, characters and plot of “Midnight in Paris” come straight out of Woody Allen the Persona, as is the case with any of his films. Owen Wilson serves as an unexpectedly good surrogate for Allen’s particular brand of neuroses and self-conscious romanticism-in-a-nutshell personality. The leads are complemented by an impressive array of supporting actors and actresses, including France’s first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy as a wise and beautiful museum guide who becomes a subtle guiding beacon for Gil.
There is a whimsical, dreamlike quality that permeates throughout the production: from the smoky French ragtime jazz soundtrack to the sparkling re-creation of notable time periods in France’s history, Allen’s direction ensures that the experience of each scene fulfills the overall aesthetic continuity of the film. The darkened alley where Gil Pender gets picked up every night at midnight is the symbolic segue from his reality to his dream world. His nocturnal trysts actively change his real-world point of view on his situation, and his fiancée, echoing the surrealist’s emphasis on dreams influencing and determining waking-life.
What ends up being the moral of the story is one we are all familiar with: you can never go back. Banal as the sentiment may be, Allen’s exploration of this fact does not lack in originality or poignancy. While the audience is taken on a whimsical tromp through the dreams and musings of Woody Allen, the insistence on communicating that nostalgia is an escapist fantasy that leads to an infinite regress is shown in a fantastical and clever way. The ancient Roman literary critic Horace offered that the point of art is to delight and instruct. If this happens to be the case, Woody Allen has struck a harmonious chord with a magic only he could concoct.

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