Longing in Paris
There’s a lot to like about Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris. So much so that one might name an online journal after the main character. Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, an American screenwriter who dreams of being a great novelist. He is working on his first novel while visiting Paris with his fiancé Inez, played by Rachel McAdams, and her unlikeable parents. If their company wasn’t bad enough, they run into friends of Inez, who are flawlessly over the top and pedantic; delightfully hateable in every way. Gil’s trip takes a dramatic turn when he stumbles upon a car that takes him back to the 1920’s every night at midnight, where he spends time with the likes of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgereld, and Gertrude Stein.
There is much to resonate with in the film. The characters from the past are wonderful. There are so many artists and writers that have inspired me as a designer: Toulouse Lautrec, Monet, Picasso, Degas, Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Fitzgerald, and the list goes on. For every cynic, there are the insufferable know-it-all characters you love to hate. Also, there is great balance to the film. It does many things in good measure. It’s funny, but doesn’t live in the trivial. It makes you think and feel as well.
But the thing that I resonate most with in this film is the idea of nostalgia or longing. Gil longs for Paris in the 1920’s. He gets his wish and is allowed to go back there. While living out his dream, he meets and falls in love with a woman named Adriana, who longs for the 1890’s. In an Inception-esque moment, Gil travels back in time again with Mal to the 1890s. Through this experience, he has an epiphany that he states to her: “Adriana, if you stay here though, and this becomes your present then pretty soon you’ll start imagining another time was really your… You know, was really the golden time. Yeah, that’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.”
I empathize with Gil’s observations. The past is extremely alluring. I think back so fondly to my days in college and want to go back. The present IS a little bit unsatisfying. There is longing for something else and I try desperately to find it. It’s easy to look to the past for it because I can’t get back there. If I try to find meaning in things in the present (current relationships, my work, entertainment, art, beauty, romance), I will easily see that these can’t hold it. However, if I look to the past, I can fool myself into thinking it was perfect. But that doesn’t satisfy either. I can’t get there. So where do we now look? To the future naturally. Allen offers his take on that as well through Gertrude Stein. She speaks to Gil (who, of course, like most of Allen’s protagonists, is a projection of himself) and says, “We all question our place in the future. The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence. You have a clear and lively voice. Don’t be such a defeatist.”
Allen offers, through Stein, his answers to these questions. That existence is empty and we need to find an antidote for it. What if existence is not empty though? What if this unsatisfying feeling exists for a reason? What if Marcus Mumford is right and “there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears. Get over your hill and see what you find there, With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair”? Then the longing I feel when watching films like this doesn’t end with despair, but excitement and wonder. Then the art, romance, and beauty in films like this do not define life and existence, but rather points to more of it.