In his newest film Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen tells us a story about being content with the time, place, and era in which we are born. Yet in this film, it appears to be a universal fact that every generation yearns for an earlier time, more pure and “golden” than one that they inhabit. Gil (Owen Wilson) longs for Paris in the roaring 1920s, only to find that the so-called “Lost Generation” desires to be part of the sumptuous Belle Époque, and the master painters of that period (Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Gauguin) themselves actually ache to have lived in la Renaissance. Woody Allen implies that if we perpetually yearn for something we cannot have, we can never fully appreciate the present time that we have been given or experience la joie de vivre. The perpetual beauty of Paris, Allen shows us, is intrinsically connected with the lives shaped by certain eras — past or present. This is where he employs a whimsical — if not magical — construction of time as a portal at midnight.
Gil, a well-cast younger version of Woody Allen, is the dreamer and struggling novelist who finds Paris as his muse and (literally) his source of inspiration. For Gil, self-discovery and clarity come through meeting other disenchanted characters in his rather romanticized past. His fiancée Inéz (Rachel McAdams) is the progressive female traveler, never bereft of her Hermès or Louis Vuitton handbag. Inéz exemplifies the American woman’s obsession with Paris: the bags, the dinners, the flea markets and antique stories, Versailles, and luxury hotels. In short, la tourist typique. Through their relationship, Allen creates dissonance in the film. Rather than supporting Gil’s sense of romance and adventure, Inéz wants to be impressed, finding Gil rather jejune, being taken instead with Paul, the pseudo-intellectual (Michael Sheen). With Inéz, there can be no strolling through Paris in the rain, which she asserts is ridiculous, running instead to catch a taxi. Instead of being inquisitive and affirming, she is deprecating and critical of Gil — anything but artistically supportive. Gil must spend the nights on his own where time can be a non-entity, as well as the portal for him to rediscover his present era. As yet another example from Allen’s repertoire of disillusioned philosophical characters, Gil finds his identity as a writer only by interacting with his literary heroes. In doing this, he realizes that the writers and artists he had idealized were not so unlike him in their own time.
Allen deftly employs Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast as the structure for the interconnected relationships in this film. Allen assumes that his viewers are aware of the relational connections — like his protagonist Gil is — and does not provide a backstory. One either needs an art history and literature course, or a reading of A Moveable Feast in order to make sense of the matrix of relationships in that period. Yet Allen takes the essence of A Moveable Feast and translates it into film. As stated by Hemingway in the memoir: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Hemingway’s reference to Paris as a “moveable feast” is essentially related to the feasts of the Catholic liturgical calendar. Easter is the moveable feast par excellence because it adapts and is “moved” to synchronize with the equinox. By making this comparison, Hemingway is extending the term as metaphor for the city of Paris, because once experienced, Paris will always be Paris, no matter where one lives out their days, regardless of the decade. In every frame, Allen captures how and why Paris remains with people in this way.
Allen’s opening montage of quintessential Parisian postcard shots, culminating at Monet’s Japanese Footbridge in Giverny, is every art lover’s dream on screen. This prelude makes us desire to be in such a lovely place, perhaps upsetting our own present contentment. If we have not been to Paris, than we certainly want to visit. Like every Woody Allen film set in New York (especially Manhattan), his camera has a love affair with the character of the city, in hope that his viewer will too. His attention to aesthetic details is to be noted: from his notable musical motifs with saxophone, classical guitar or harmonica; to the hand-beaded flapper dresses and upholstered damask canapés, to the roses surrounding Rodin’s Le Penseur; we as viewers want to be in the City of Lights as spectators and connoisseurs.
I first read A Moveable Feast when I was studying for a summer at Oxford. One weekend, I was in Paris and made a pilgrimage to Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, across from Notre Dame along the Seine to purchase a copy. It was an appropriate place to buy the book because Beach not only had housed many of the starving writers and artists in the ’20s, lending them much of her library, but she also first published James Joyce’s Ulysses, since it was banned from print in the United States. This fact is actually mentioned by Hemingway in the memoir, who was incredibly jealous of Joyce for his renown and financial stability after the success of Ulysses. I remember reading the book on a train to Wales and being immediately refreshed by Hemingway’s nonfiction for a change. As a Humanities major in my undergraduate studies, I was familiar with each author and artist’s work individually, but was astounded to discover their interconnected community in post World War I Paris. I had read the Great Gatsby, “The Waste Land,” Pound’s “Cantos,” and knew Picasso’s paintings, but I did not know that they would all congregate simultaneously on the rive gauche of Paris.
From the memoir we are privy to an insider’s perspective of the literary acquaintances — both in their mutual support and competition. For example, Hemingway describes Ezra Pound as being confident enough in T.S. Eliot’s talent as a poet that he raises money within their community to relieve Eliot of his job at the bank in order to write full-time. We also hear Hemingway’s resentful tone as he watches Joyce and his family dine at the renowned Michaud’s, while he bitterly waters down his wine to make it last. However, it is at 27 rue Fleurus that Hemingway is discipled in ways of the time by Gertrude Stein, an advisor to many of the writers and artists of that period. It is she who names this period after the horrors of World War I: “All of you young people who served in the war — you are all une génération perdue [a lost generation] . . . you have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death.”
Woody Allen’s Gil is only privy to the depravity of the so-called “Lost-Generation” when he encounters the culture for himself, particularly when his picturesque evening stroll with Adriana (Marion Cotillard) is interrupted to save Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pil) from an attempt to drown herself. Even in conversation with Adriana, who had come to Paris in order study couture with Coco Chanel and became the lover of Modigliani, Braque, and Picasso, Gil discovers that she is not content to live in the ’20s. Instead, she yearns for a time before the “Lost Generation,” in a less industrial age, bereft of automobiles, with gas street lamps and cabarets at Maxim’s. Here, Gil discovers that he cannot live in denial of his present reality by nostalgically and mentally abiding in the past. Instead, he decides to love Paris in his own era, just as Hemingway poignantly does in his memoir. Though Hemingway was poor, he absorbed the city with fervor regardless of his status: “But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”
This week marks the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death. In honor of his memory, I invite you to see this film, read his memoir, and perhaps pay a visit to a café where you can experience the quaint and unique charm of Paris. The warm, cozy settings are difficult to find, and are not found now in the once-classic-now-tourist-haunted Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore cafés mentioned by Hemingway (also frequented by philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, his lover Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde). If you happen to be close to Woody Allen’s Brooklyn, there’s the tiny Parisian Moto Café that sits under the Hewes railway station and plays live music nightly. You might just catch the street jazz band Baby Soda that brings ‘20s Paris to the present. Perhaps you might even get a light summer rain during your first visit, as I once did.
The invitation to ages past is possible through a doorway in the present — through this film, Hemingway’s memoir or a gastronomic experience. In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen helps us discover that it is not the past that is truly enchanting but the present, and indeed what has yet to be lived. Thus, Allen allows us to learn with Gil, and even Hemingway, Robert Browning’s hopeful lines: “grow old with me, the best is yet to be.”