Woody Allen's Parisian magic

The Browsers Ecstasy

literary fantasy Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’, starring Owen Wilson, is also a homage to the city of Paris.

And at some point, they meet in the oddest and funniest of ways to fulfill a deep literary fantasy. You’ll best remember The Kugelmass Episode where the hero is thrilled to find himself suddenly thrust in the pages of a book he admires (and teaches): Madame Bovary. Soon, he is even dating Emma Bovary, and steals her from Flaubert to bring her back to present day New York City. For the plot of his new movie, Allen invents a fantasy that resembles one of these light, airy New Yorker stories more than his dark, cynical, neurosis-filled movie themes.

Midnight In Paris is also a homage to the city; his second after Everyone Says I Love You. Allen is now convinced this is the greatest city in the world, followed by London and then his own, New York. His hero is Gil (Owen Wilson) a hack Hollywood screenwriter who is working on a novel that he hopes will be the real thing — good literature, not shallow screenwriting. His hopes are up because he finds himself in Paris with his fiancé, and the city feels full of inspiration. He can only think and talk and dream of Paris in the 20s, and how it must have been with all those struggling writers and painters. His girlfriend, (Rachel McAdams) is growing tired of his Paris-enchantment; for her the city is a tourist destination. Gil wants to walk the streets of Paris in the rain, while she hurries to jump into a cab.

One night, walking the streets of Paris alone, lost and trying to find his hotel, he sees an old motorcar, clearly a vintage model, that draws up to him, and its occupants, a bunch of late-night revellers, persuade him to get inside the car with them and party. Soon after, Gil finds himself at a party where Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald are present. So is Hemingway. And Picasso. The pianist in the room is Cole Porter. Gil has magically stepped into the 20s. Gil stops being incredulous and accepts his luck. He gets luckier when Hemingway and Fitzgerald take him to Gertrude Stein’s house so he can have his novel read by her. She says she’ll help him find a respectable publisher.

The next morning, waking up at his hotel, Gil knows it wasn’t a dream. He persuades his fiancé to walk the same dark and narrow city street with him as night falls. She humours him. They wait for what seems a long time to her, and when nothing happens, she gets into a cab in a huff and leaves him. Gil can’t figure out why the old motorcar didn’t arrive, talking to himself, he wonders, ‘what am I doing wrong? I was at this same spot last night, the bells chimed midnight (and just then the bells ring) and the cab appeared…and there it is!’ Indeed, coming around the corner is the old motorcar carrying more revellers. So, the exact hour of bewitchment, our aspiring writer-hero realises, is midnight in Paris. Each night Gil returns here, and is sucked in deeper into the 20s.

On another night, the gentleman in the old motorcar introduces himself to Gil as Thomas Stearns Eliot. In a café, he meets at one shot, Dali, Man Ray and Bunuel and suggests to the latter the plot for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Bunuel simply can’t get it, “The guests can’t leave? But why not? I don’t understand.’ Woody Allen has the writers and painters behave as amusing caricatures than characters, playing out the legend. Hemingway is always saying things like, ‘if the writing is true and honest it is good writing’ and ‘it is not only a noble thing but a brave thing’, and ‘your writing has to feel like grace under pressure’. He is prone to jumping up from his seat in a bar, shadow boxing the air, and shouting, ‘let’s fight, come on dammit, does no one want a good fight?’

It’s a deliberately naïve, innocent literary fantasy — a romanticised, sweet view of these great artists and the world they inhabit. The fantasy of not an insider, i.e., a working writer, but that of a bewitched outsider — a filmmaker in awe of books. He dreams of living in a loft, a struggling writer walking home each evening with a baguette and a bottle of wine in his hand. The artists in this fantasy are inspired all the time, partying all the time, making love all the time. They are rivals in art and love but don’t seem to be harmed from jealously and envy. Their bohemianism doesn’t burn them; they seem sustained and fed by anarchy. By contrast, Gil’s girlfriend and her parents are vulgar, philistine, and Tea Party Republican. The only thing they have in common (and Allen brings this up often in other movies as well) is Indian food!

Gil is poised to have an affair with a stunningly beautiful woman who happens to be Hemingway’s lover. How is Gil so confident that he can take her away from macho Papa Hemingway? Because during the day, walking the streets of Paris, Gil comes across her published diary in a sidewalk bookshop, and discovers he is an entry there! She is confessing to being more attracted to him than Papa! This literary cross-dressing is one of Allen’s finest devises from those old New Yorker literary pastiches: a homage and a parody of classics. Readers step into their favourite books, and in turn, favourite characters step into the world of readers! I admired Allen’s earlier film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, which seemed such a perfect little film. Midnight in Paris isn’t as good, but it shows that Allen’s achievement here is no fluke: he is back in form, easily going from funny, dark tragedies to funny, light comedies. And that’s the old Woody Allen we all knew and worshipped.

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