From the opening montage of Midnight in Paris, which echoes the opening of Manhattan, it’s clear that Woody Allen is the ultimate lover of cities. City life charges his characters with energy, driving them toward their truest selves. When his characters leave the city—as they do in Annie Hall and Stardust Memories, and other movies—it’s as if they lose contact with what made them who they are. They’re lost, out of touch with themselves. Even their relationships with others become skewed by the prism of life away from the throbbing metropolis. Yes, the city may also be home to gangsters, thieves, and sharpers, but it’s also what holds people together. Lose that and you
lose yourself, even your ability to love or feel bonded to others. A great city is a moveable feast, as some smarty-pants once said about Paris. And one of the things that keep Allen’s city-dwellers bonded is their ability to appreciate the same elements of that feast. When Alvy Singer takes Annie Hall to see Night and Fog, it’s not only because the character is obsessed with the movie and with the Holocaust; it’s also a compatibility test. If you like the same movies, the same teams—if you’re appalled and amazed by the same things—chances are you’ll like each other. Take those touchstones away, and it’s not so clear. This is what makes the lobster scene so funny and, at the same time, touching. After losing Annie, he reaches out to someone new, only to find that the connection simply isn’t there.
The nebbish Allen has spent a lifetime playing is never at home in the here and now, unless it’s in the reconstructed identity of the city. For Allen, removing yourself from
the city is removing yourself from all touchstones of value. But until now, every effort to find an alternate universe has led to complications.
In Allen’s hilarious short story “The Kugelmass Episode” (maybe the funniest short
story of the 20th century) and in the movies Purple Rose of Cairo and even in Zelig. Characters who feel out of place in the here and now seek happiness—or at least a sense of belonging—in the there and then, in another time, another dimension. For Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo, the there and then is the movies. For Kugelmass, modern life is less appealing than life in 19th-century France, particularly inside the novel Madame Bovary—until Emma decides to come back to his own time. And for Zelig, a figure who seems, in Vonnegut’s phrase, “unstuck in time,” happiness lies in none of the times in which the finds himself. He’s always at the edge of the frame, like Fra Angelico, startled to find himself there.
But Midnight in Paris gives us Gil, played winsomely by Owen Wilson, who’s unhappily engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdams), but isn’t really aware of his unhappiness until—and this spoiler is self-evident from the trailer—he’s magically whisked from the Paris of 2011 to the Paris of the 1920’s. It’s a place complete with a cast of characters straight out of a Norton anthology of literature or a Jasper Fforde novel. There Gil discovers his true passion, his true talent, his truest self. Where “Kugelmass” plays this conceit for laughs, Paris plays it as pure romance. Not love, really, though Gil does fall in love with someone from the past, but romance for the self he might have been. A more hard-edged treatment of the theme would have shown the complications of inserting yourself into another time, but that would be a different movie, one Allen has already made a couple of times. I have a thing against movies that are described as “charming” because it’s usually a nice way of saying “naive.” But Midnight in Paris is truly charming. It’s a love song to the Paris of the mind, where all our talents and passions come to life, where at last we become exactly the person we were meant to be in exactly the place where we belong.