What if you could visit nostalgia? Midnight in Paris flirts with this premise. Nostalgia in this Woody Allen movie is not just a state of mind; it manifests itself as a destination. The protagonist first travels through space and then time. Gil (Owen Wilson) goes on a vacation to his favourite destination, Paris. He is a screenwriter obsessed with nostalgia, largely because he is unhappy with his present. He is engaged to a woman named Inez (Rachel McAdams), who does not quite stir his emotions in a way he has read about in books. He is caught between a lucrative career as a screenwriter and completing his debut novel, the theme of which is nostalgia. Inez’s friend, the pedantic Paul (Michael Sheen) diagnoses his condition as ‘golden age thinking’ – a belief that a time in the past was better than the present.
In a miraculous turn of events (or through an aperture in the fabric of the space-time continuum, to put it in time travel lingo) he gets transported to Paris of 1920s. It is as if the nostalgia shop from his novel has come to life. Night after night Gil takes this journey and meets the who’s who of 1920s literati. What follows seems to be the writer’s surreal dream – to share a drink with Hemingway and have whatever Salvador Dalí is having. Between dining with the Fitzgeralds and running his draft by Gertrude Stein, Gil is on the getaway of his life (or from his life?). He gets validation from Hemingway on his novel and finds a kindred soul in Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Is this experience good enough enough for Gil to settle forever in the land of nostalgia?
One person’s nostalgia is another person’s distant past. Gil realizes this as another travel in time takes him and Adriana to the 1890s. Adriana refers to the Belle Epoque as the golden age, but Gil does not connect to it, the same way Inez does not get the allure of the 1920s. Apparently, golden age thinking is time-agnostic and has existed since humanity evolved to a stage of critical thinking and found the present unsatisfying. The passage of time, as the opening line of Gil’s novel goes, transmutes the prosaic and vulgar into the magical and it is a continuous cycle (although the heart aches imagining a future where people will listen to “Chipkale saiyaan Fevicol se” with fondness). Adriana decides to stay in the 1890s, a decision that the Gil from the beginning of the movie would have taken (for a different period, the 1920s). However, these midnight escapades into dreamland have surprisingly brought Gil closer to accepting reality. He arrives at the conclusion that nostalgia is a good place but not a place to live in. The importance of being happy in the here and now hits home. He stays back in Paris, not the ‘golden era’ Paris, but the Paris of the present. The Paris that he loves in the rain. Woody Allen creates this illusion of the greatest city in Paris with bright lights, intellectual banter, and bohemian camaraderie. He also places 2 dreamers (Gil and Adriana) in juxtaposition with the realists (Inez and Paul) to let the conversations organically cover the affection for the memories of the past and the importance of the ‘material’ of the present. Some place midway between those arguments is Gil’s destination.
While the movie is a love letter to the city and its spirit, Paris is never going to be on my itinerary. The destination that this movie makes me want to travel to is the ‘idea of Paris’. It is a multitude of dreams, old-world charm and free thinking – one whose coordinates reside in my imagination. The actual city, sans my imagination or Woody Allen’s lens, is bound to bring disappointment. Quite like Gil in the movie, I take mental strolls on nostalgic nights and let my mind get transported to this fantasy, i.e., the idea of Paris. The best thing about this destination is that the travel is unaffected by lockdowns and flying restrictions.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.