Sunday, February 19, 2012

Midnight in Paris -- nostalgia and fantasies

Director: Woody Allen, 2011. (PG-13) 

Anyone that has been to Paris recognizes that the City of Lights is one of the most romantic cities in the world. And given that, there is a tendency to look back on earlier visits with a nostalgic smile, wishing for a return. Woody Allen’s latest movie is a romantic comedy set in this beautiful city and deals with the theme of nostalgia. Lighter than much of his work (such as his pessimistic Whatever Works), this is a charming movie with splendid cinematography that captures the spirit of Paris.

After a long series of establishing shots that make it clear that this is Paris in the 21st century, a city of wonder and warmth, we see the protagonist Gil (Owen Wilson, The Darjeeling Limited) and his fiancée Inez (Rachel MacAdams, State of Play) from a distance across a peaceful park. When he tells how wonderful Paris is and how he would love to live there, she replies, “You’re in love with a fantasy.” He responds, “I’m in love with you.” Who or what is he in love with? Inez has it right. Gil’s concept of love is romanticized and dwells in his fantasyland.

Gil is a Hollywood screenwriter, a person dabbling in words. What he wants to be is a serious writer, and he is working on his first novel without really getting anywhere. He is a perfectionist and is stuck. He and Inez have come to Paris courtesy of her parents, who are there on business. They are rich, conservative and pragmatic, while Gil is surviving, liberal and dreamy.

The opening act brings another couple into the mix, the smug and self-absorbed academic Paul (Michael Sheen, The Damned United) and his wife, friends of Inez. Unable to avoid going on trips with them, Gil finds himself verbally castrated by Paul a number of times right in front of Inez. So, when they want to go off for dancing at the end of an evening, Gil elects to go for a walk alone, to savor Paris and try to find his muse. What he finds, instead, is some magic. Lost and alone, waiting at midnight in Paris on some stone steps, a magical car stops and the occupants beckon him to join them. And they take him back in time to his “Golden Age” magical fantasy period, the 20s, where his favorite writers, painters, musicians and artists lived.

Owen Wilson is well cast as Gil. He brings a west-coast laid-back appeal to Gil whose charisma is restrained by his lack of confidence. MacAdams plays against type, being bitchy and anything but charming. What Gil sees in her is unclear; maybe an attraction of opposites. And Sheen is brilliant as the obnoxious professor who seems to know everything and is willing to correct even the tour guide.

Gil’s nightly walks and time travels bring him pleasure and help him find his writing voice. But they raise suspicion with Inez and her parents. They also bring him into contact with a French beauty, Adriana (Marion Cotillard, Contagion), whose own fantasy is La Belle Epoque, the Paris of the late 19th century.

Both Gil and Adriana are pining for their fantasies. They are looking back on the past and seeing it through rose colored glasses. As Gil puts it, “Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain? Imagine this town in the ‘20s. Paris in the 20’s, in the rain. The artists and the writers!” And when he gets to experience this, he is in heaven. But he doesn’t live there long enough to become familiar with it, to experience the dross, the chaff with the wheat.

We can be like this, too. We dream dreams. We create fantasies and then wish to make them real, not realizing that they are deceptively unreal. They may make us smile for a while, but they cannot sustain their appeal. Satisfaction will turn to discontent. This is evident in Adriana. She lives in the 20s and she wishes to go back another 30 years to her “Golden Age”. Clearly they have different ideals of the true golden age of Paris, just as we all do. Such subjectivity cannot be ratified externally. It is for us alone. But not for us to live with or live in.

Nostalgia is clearly a key theme in this nostalgic film. The dictionary defines the term as “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one's life”. Paul, the insufferable professor, gives Gil a much harsher definition: “Nostalgia is denial - denial of the painful present . . . the name for this denial is golden age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”

Nostalgia is one thing; living in the past is another. Gil has problems with the present: “That's what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.” He cannot deny the allure of the past, but he cannot deny the dissatisfaction of the present. Paul maybe right, but a little nostalgia does not hurt provided we maintain perspective and avoid disillusionment with the present.

The present is where we live. That seems obvious, but it is worth pointing out. And we live with the highs and lows in the immediate. Hindsight allows us to magnify the highs and minimize the lows. But we cannot do that in the here and now. Jesus comes to offer life to each of us: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10). This life is present and ongoing. But it is centered on the life-giver, who also said “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6). This Jesus also said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (Jn. 11:25). The point he was making is that he offers life now, as well life later. Life may be unsatisfying, but it may also be satisfying. Sometimes it is a matter of perspective. Sometimes we need to see the glass half-full, rather than half-empty.

Nostalgia would have us live in the past. Paul would have us focus on the painful present. Christ would have us cherish the past and all we have enjoyed or experienced (or wished we had experienced) while living in the present and looking ahead to the future: “And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). Past, present and future all have value. They combine in the one who lived before time and outside of time (Jn. 1:1), who has entered time as one of us (Phil. 2:6-8). That kind of nostalgia will leave us with hope for today. This is like the hope that Woody leaves us with in the final scene.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

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