The Oscar buzz is in full swing now. And it’s not surprising that with The Artist, Carnage, Moneyball and My Week With Marilyn in the theatres, it’s one of the best weekends at the movies. Here’s Fatema Kagalwala‘s recco for one more charming film – Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris. Read On. And don’t miss it.
Perhaps the most beautiful emotion to feel and soak in, besides love, is nostalgia, humankind’s singular tool to change the past, otherwise believed to be unchangeable. It is our very own time-travel device that takes us to places that never were but have become because of the way we choose to remember them. Present is drudgery but over time, after events have collected a dust of distance, they get shrouded in a mist of romance that becomes our haven, a cocoon which protects us from the unbearable banality of the present. A dreamworld we can escape to at will, and stay there for as long as the common concerns of the present do not summon us back with brutal force. With no control over the future and saddled permanently with a present we can never be content in, we are left with only this. This ability of re-writing our history to have something to be proud of. This gift, as it maybe perceived as, is the backbone of the much-loved Midnight in Paris. Above and beyond the travels of Gil into the depths of Time, it harks us back into the territory of rosy nostalgia, the blindfold behind which everything is safe.
This love for the past is almost lyrical. As poetic as Woody Allen presents in his dreamy albeit slightly woolly-headed Gil. And as precise as science, he makes him a writer, dwelling in the poetry of yesteryears, seeking the mirage of a gold-dusted past. Allen makes him choose Paris, the most fabled (at least in the Western world) romantic city full of the mystique and exoticism of art and expression. As we watch Gil engage with the city, we begin to crave the opiate of escape and begin to wear his shroud of nostalgia with pride and a certain willingness beyond the power of Gil’s experiences to arouse. We give up to the visions of our own Golden Age, whatever it might be, and revel in the feeling of the enigmatic ‘if only’. We thirst to find our own Parisian street we could roam at midnight and enter our perfect world, a world that never was but that which always lives within us.
It is this thirst, accompanied with Allen’s intuitive writing that steers us through fundamental truths of our relationship with time. None of the wonder that consumes Gil in his nightly sojourns is part of the lives of Adriana, Hemmingway or the Fitzgeralds. But the cyclical obsession for yore shows up in Adriana’s climactic choice when a somewhat misplaced wisdom shakes Gil back into the present. Misplaced because it seems out-of-character and sync with the young, idealist we see seeking truth and beauty with the innocence of a child. As a climactic turning point his revelation appears without notice and motivation, almost like a screen-writer-induced epiphany, diluting the entire premise of Gil’s character, thirst and search.
But it is with his ‘epiphany’ that the strong undercurrent of post-modern ennui, resonating in every single of Allen’s work, suddenly comes into play. It is logical and it makes the most sense. And as unpoetic as it is, it draws that familiar blanket of dejection around the theme, particularly in the way we now perceive Adriana and her delusion in contrast.
In that sense, Midnight in Paris, in the true tradition of Allen’s films, isn’t a hopeful picture even if Gil’s ultimate ‘escape’ may seem victorious. There is that unmistakable, underlying thread of pessimism that is a founding trope of all of Allen’s films. This juxtapositioning of reality and delusion is subtler than the film would have us believe and almost missable. But it is this juxtapositioning that brings home the universal truth of what we may not hurry to see, that this too shall pass. Apply it to the living present or the living in the past as it were.
However smart this juxtapositioning may be, its smartness becomes the undoing of the deeper and more significant sub-text. Were Gil’s realisation a result of a character growth or an outcome of an event, the smartness would have suddenly transformed into a more studied expose. We, in our terrific rush of having limply succumbed into the arms of yesterday, accept it because the act of breaking his suffocating engagement becomes our direct point-of-reference for his character growth. But it is merely a diversion that we mistake as the destination.
At first glance, Owen Wilson seems an unlikely actor to play the part of wide-eyed Gil. His demeanour and biography is hardly striking enough to carry off a character that sparks off dreamworlds in the most magical manner. But as Gil, he is transformed in front of our eyes into the part-naïve, part-grounded, part-dreamy idealist charming us into his utopia compelling us to love his journey as much as we would love our own. Marion Cotilard, on the other hand, does not have to ‘do’ anything for us to love her. She is undoubtedly the perfect choice to play the pixie-like, porcelain Adriana whom we can’t help but want to protect, even if it is from her own self-destructiveness. The wispy, ethereal beauty of Marion does half the work and the rest is superbly accomplished by the stunning actress herself. Coming away, we are forced to admit, no one could have played the parts better than these two.
Allen chooses his Golden Age with art and its main protagonists with a tongue-firmly-in-cheek. The Fitzgeralds were almost as mythical in their own time as they are now, and so was the Jazz Age. He picks the best representatives of the time but presents them as trophy heroes. We are left star-struck, as much as Gil is and hunger for more. But the legends, as we know them to be today, seem bound by a necessity to shock and entertain. And it is here that Midnight in Paris falters. As legends after legends flood Gil’s dream, ours is disrupted. A certain dishonesty of intent creeps in and the onus veers towards gimmick, taking away the artfulness it has carefully built so far.
But by now they have created a beautiful world, a world neither we nor Gil would like to ever be taken from, a dream we would never like to be awakened from. Probably for this, Midnight in Paris will forever remain a very dear piece of cinema to us. Because despite the choices the film makes, it brings us close to a world we all yearn for. But more importantly, it brings to us very vividly, the joys of attaining the perfection that is humanly impossible. It is this affirmation we cherish which is far, far beyond the artistry of the film. Yet, it is a gift, an ascertained gift the film gives us so that we can continue to look for our time in the rain, at midnight, when we can escape into our Golden Age, even if momentarily. Meanwhile, we can turn to Gil’s. Even if it is for less than two hours, and which even though smaller than our own love for the past, will suffice.
Click on the play button to enjoy the opening scene of the film.