The idea of romanticism

good old days

modest A still from ‘Midnight in Paris’.

It begins with a gasp of astonishment — “Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?” — and ends with a shrug: “Well, I forget the rest.” Isn’t that always how it goes? The past seems so much more vivid, more substantial, than the present, and then it evaporates with the cold touch of reality. The good old days are so alluring because we were not around, however much we wish we were.

Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s charming new film, imagines what would happen if that wish came true. It is marvellously romantic, even though — or precisely because — it acknowledges the disappointment that shadows every genuine expression of romanticism. The film has the inspired silliness of some of Allen’s classic comic sketches (most obviously, A Twenties Memory, in which the narrator's nose is repeatedly broken by Ernest Hemingway), spiked with the rueful fatalism that has characterised so much of his later work.

Nothing here is exactly new, but why would you expect otherwise in a film so pointedly suspicious of novelty? Very little is stale, either, and Allen has gracefully evaded the trap built by his grouchy admirers and unkind critics — I’m not alone in fitting both descriptions — who complain when he repeats himself and also when he experiments. Not for the first time, he has found a credible blend of whimsy and wisdom.

Paris, golden and gray, breezy and melancholy, immune to its own abundant cliches and gorgeously shot by Darius Khondji, certainly helps. So does a roster of droppable names that includes recent Oscar winners, the first lady of France and a pantheon of artistic immortals. Was that Carla Bruni? Why yes, it was. And that was Salvador Dali too. Dali is played by Adrien Brody. Mme. Sarkozy plays a tour guide at the Musee Rodin.

Owen Wilson, a tall, laid-back iteration of the familiar Allen persona, is Gil, a perpetually dissatisfied Hollywood screenwriter trying to reinvigorate his youthful dreams of literary glory. He’s at work on a novel about “a guy who owns a nostalgia shop” and at the same time indulging in the virtual time travel that Paris affords a certain kind of visitor. You can sit at a table where Hemingway drank wine — or Degas or Baudelaire or even Diderot, if you prefer — and imagine that they just stepped out to take the air.

But Gil, by means that Allen wisely leaves unexplained, is transported into his chosen Parisian golden age, more or less reversing the process that brought Emma Bovary to Manhattan in his story The Kugelmass Episode or Tom Baxter down from the movie screen in The Purple Rose of Cairo. As Gil sulks one night at a quiet crossroads, an antique roadster comes rattling by, and he is swept off to a soiree by none other than Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill).

The process repeats itself each night, granting Gil VIP access to a non-stop Lost Generation party. It would be the height of bad manners to list every cultural hero he runs into, but he makes the requisite pilgrimage to visit Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who graciously agrees to read his manuscript. He also develops a crush on Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who has been keeping company with Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and who wishes she could exchange the drab Paris of the '20s for the Belle Epoque, when things were really happening.

Adriana’s sighing dissatisfaction with her own era mirrors Gil’s. Back in the daylight world of 21st century Paris, he must contend with a materialistic fiancee (a superbly speeded-up Rachel McAdams); her vulgar, moneyed parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy); and an insufferable pedant named Paul (Michael Sheen). Paul’s habit of prefacing every show-offy bit of data with “if I’m not mistaken” is a sign that, in the ways that count, he is. He is another classic Allen type, the know-it-all pseudo-intellectual, and as such the obvious foil for Wilson’s passionate, self-deprecating schlemiel. If Paul ever met T S  Eliot, he would spout revised footnotes for The Waste Land. For his part, Gil cries out, “Prufrock is mantra!”

Let’s not go there, you and I. Unless I’m mistaken, “Prufrock” is a statement of the very ennui — the perception of a diminished world unable to satisfy a hungering sensibility — that afflicts Gil. Allen’s treatment of this condition is gentle and wry. He can hardly be unaware that he himself is, for much of his audience, an object of nostalgic affection, much the way Cole Porter, among others, is for Gil, his alter ego.

That a shared love of Porter’s music allows Gil to forge a connection in the present (and conceivably the future) with a young Parisian woman (Lea Seydoux) is a sign that his fetishising of bygone days has been based on a mistake. Paris is perpetually alive, not because it houses the ghosts of the famous dead but because it is the repository and setting of so much of their work.

Allen has often said that he does not want or expect his own work to survive, but as modest and lighthearted as Midnight in Paris is, it suggests otherwise: Not an ambition toward immortality so much as a willingness to leave something behind that catches the attention and solicits the admiration of lonely wanderers in some future time. Ah, did you once see Woody plain? How strange it seems, and new.

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