What the ex-advisor said was true and remains true: you haven’t seen a film unless you’ve seen in (at least) twice. So, for as lighthearted in tone as Woody Allen’s latest is, one must revisit it to say much about it that’s worth hearing. That being said, here we are after only one viewing. Midnight in Paris is unashamedly nostalgic, with the theme written into not only the film’s main text but its subtext – Gil’s novel even revolves around the owner of a nostalgia shop. This fact, and Woody Allen’s regular identification with the male protagonists of his films, parallels his own status as the “novelist” behind the film. Like Gil, he too is a sentimentalist at heart (albeit a sharp, educated one) who makes films about what he loves.
The opening mélange of scenic images of Paris has already been likened to the introduction to Allen’s Manhattan, but without the funny and over-the-top romanticism for the city that Allen’s own voice overlays with those earlier images. Instead, here Allen employs the music of Cole Porter, perhaps as an acknowledgement of his own muteness concerning Paris, his linguistic breakdown with the inhabitants of the city. Indeed, in Gil’s midnight world, he is inundated with not only well-known historical and literary figures from the 1920s, but largely with American ones. Whomever he encounters, they all speak English – even broken English in the case of Salvador Dalí. This linguistic cooperation of the famous figures isn’t to imply that Gil’s experiences are fantasy – that would be missing the film’s point. Rather, Allen treats the narrative content of his film the way Wes Anderson treats his in The Darjeeling Limited. These filmmakers are self-acknowledged flâneurs, traversing a land that is not their own, featuring characters that likewise understand something of their cultural limits even while somewhat obliviously romanticizing places and times that are foreign to them. These films set themselves apart from others, such as the overhyped Slumdog Millionaire, which rather more imperialistically stampeded a foreign culture with the pretense of a Westerner who believed he could know it and say something about it.
Allen, on the other hand, treats his subject matter for what it is. The opening montage keeps Paris at arm’s length, with almost entirely static shots that may as well be postcard images. The fact that it’s Paris, and not some small town in southern Provence, only serves to strengthen the argument that we are occupying, via cinema, the most hallowed ground of romanticized cities in the world. All the big sites are visited, with the viewer led along by Gil, an American born in Pasadena and working as a writer of sub-par Hollywood screenplays who hardly knows a lick of French. But he doesn’t need to. Indeed, one can read into the narrative beyond the film; the day Gil learns French is the day when Gil loses part of his nostalgia for the city. For in the same way that Adriana inadvertently teaches Gil not to sentimentalize the past (a temporal realm), Gil should eventually learn not to romanticize Paris (a spatial realm). This could be the only significant blind spot in Midnight in Paris. While fully conscious of its own nostalgic nature and the correspondence between its protagonist and its author, the consequences of its nostalgia are only partially acknowledged. It has been noted recently how often Woody Allen has been moving outside of his beloved New York to make films. He has recently made a number of movies in England, Spain, and now France. Has New York lost its charm? Has this most romantic of spaces (for Allen) changed, leaving Allen longing for a temporal period in the past? (Which only begs the real question: what “is” “New York”? Does it have an inherent essence? Can a city “change”?) This notion was already largely evident based on his previous depictions of New York, as seen most markedly in Manhattan. (For instance, his use of black and white pulls the viewer into a different temporal period than the contemporary one.) And if, as seems likely, Allen’s affinity for New York is being replaced, or at least temporarily set aside, for the likes of London, Barcelona, and Paris, why is his main critique of nostalgia in Midnight in Paris merely temporal and not also spatial? The film concludes with Gil and his new Parisian ami walking away at night, in the rain, into the belly of Paris. Gil has learned his lesson about re-envisioning the past as an inherently superior time than the present. Still, he settles into Paris with contempt for his home in southern California, and with all the naïve optimism of Adriana when she and Gil were ushered back to La Belle Époque.