Cinematic Sentiments: Curing Nostalgia with Hope in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
12 February 2012
Everyone, at some point in life, wishes he/she could go back in time. Some people wish they could return to a happier or simpler time in their own life, maybe reliving a special or exciting day. Others wish they could return to era predating their life, an era idealized. Although it seems this desire for yesteryear is harmless, fixating on the past has less to do with the glory of days gone by and more to do with avoiding the present. Taking that thought further, reverting to the past, a time that has already been lived, seems a distressed attempt to secure safety from life’s unforeseen curveballs and quick turns. Otherwise known as nostalgia, this longing for the past is the focus of Woody Allen’s sleeper-hit Midnight in Paris.
Allen’s Midnight in Paris follows Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful screenwriter from Hollywood who aspires to become a novelist. Gil is vacationing in Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her family. Although Gil and Inez are marrying in a short time, their relationship is falling apart; unbeknownst to Gil, Inez is having an affair with an old flame. While strolling alone one night, Gil happens upon a taxi straight out of the 1920s, literally. The taxi takes Gil back in time, to the era in Paris’ history Gil most idealizes, where his literary and artistic heroes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein, are in their prime. Enamored with his idols, Gil returns to the 1920s at the stroke of midnight every night, which, literally and figuratively, pulls him even further from Inez. Furthermore, Gil meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard) in the 1920s, and the two quickly develop feelings for one another. One night, during one of Gil and Adriana’s walks, the two happen upon a horse-drawn carriage, which takes them back further into time, straight to Paris in the 1890s, which is the era Adriana most idealizes. Finding himself in the 19th century, in front of Toulouse-Lautrec in the Moulin Rouge, Gil must decide whether to keep living in the past or stay permanently in the present. In the end, Gil bids the past goodbye, as well as his fiancée, Inez. In the film’s final scene, Gil strolls alone though modern-day Paris, and, at the stroke of midnight, runs into Gabrielle (Lea Seydoux), a Parisian woman Gil met days earlier in the market. Evident from their earlier meeting, the two clearly share interests. As it begins to rain, a weather condition both Gil and Gabrielle agree is the most beautiful in Paris, the two walk off together to get a cup of coffee.
While the term nostalgia is not used as much in today’s culture as it once was, the word’s history is negative. In the 18th century, nostalgia was a medical disease (illness) one could contract. In the 19th century, nostalgia was a psychological disorder, under the umbrella of depression, for people who experienced extreme homesickness. In both centuries, those afflicted with nostalgia were considered weak; as a diagnosis, nostalgia was often times humiliating. Perhaps in response to the negativity attached to nostalgia, Woody Allen takes a stand by creating, arguably, one of his most uplifting films that offers one sure-fire cure for nostalgia, hope.
There is a saying that goes, “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it,” and this is the very mantra Allen suggests is key for those, like Gil, struggling with nostalgia. In Midnight in Paris, Gil is caught up in a romanticized version of Paris in the 1920s. For him, the modern-day world he lives in pales in comparison, making life miserable. However, Gil seizes a fantastical opportunity when he enters the mysterious taxi each night and goes back in time to the era his mind idealizes as the Golden Age. At first, visiting 1920s Paris is everything Gil imagined it would be; however, as time goes on, Gil realizes the 1920s offer many of the same trials and tribulations as the modern-day. Furthermore, when he learns Adriana believes Paris in the 1890s is the Golden Age, he realizes something more about his fixation on the past: nostalgia has nothing to do with the place or time a person romanticizes; nostalgia is about fearing the present and being unsatisfied with one’s life. Gil was granted what he wished for when he returned to the 1920s, but by going back he learned his romanticized version on Paris in the 1920s was not everything he glorified it to be. Thus, in the film’s conclusion, Gil resolves to take ownership of his present, by leaving his fiancée and deciding to move to Paris, and give life in modern-day a chance. It is a difficult decision for Gil, but one inspired by hope.
Building greater hope in the film, Allen bookends Midnight in Paris with two uplifting segments that reassure viewers Gil’s decision to leave the past behind, freeing himself of the nostalgia that once bound him, is the right one. The opening sequence of the film is a three and a half-minute montage of modern-day Paris. The sequence shows the best of Paris: beauty, grace, history, popularity, and style. It is a blend of familiar images, such as the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, and more discrete alleyways located off the city’s beaten track. The opening sequence suggests modern-day Paris is as beautiful, inviting, and booming as it has ever been. The visual postcard is homage to a city that stands as strong and vibrant today as did in the past.
The second bookend is the film’s final scene. While gazing up at the Eiffel Tower, Gil hears a clock strike midnight. This is the first time Gil has not caught the taxi at midnight to return to the past. And, as the clock continues to chime, Gabrielle emerges in front of Gil. Her appearance at midnight, which feels a lot like fate, reassures the audience that Gil’s decision to stay in the present was the correct one. Earlier in the film, fate brought the taxi to Gil at the stroke of midnight, and now, after he let the past go and took control of his life in the present, fate brings Gabrielle to him at the stroke of midnight. Although a bit hokey, Allen’s final scene suggests the romanticism Gil mistakenly placed in the past has now been accurate inserted into his present.
The bookends in Midnight in Paris support the hope Gil finds in the present, which is his cure for the nostalgia that plagued him. The only way Gil could realize his vision of the past was skewed came from visiting the past for himself and seeing that life, no matter which era or in which city one lives it, is difficult. In the real world, people are not given the opportunity Gil received; however, watching his journey to let go of the glorified past in the “reel” world certainly offers are great sense of hope for audience member about the present.