In the 2010 film Midnight in Paris Woody Allen again indulges his apparently unquenchable nostalgia for past days (in the case Paris in the 1920s), his romanticism, and his interests in the connections between life and art. We’ve seen this before, from Annie Hall to Zelig to Radio Days to “The Kuglemass Episode.” In Midnight in Paris the turf may have been oft-visited, but Allen makes it at least amusing and fresh. The film is light and entertaining and well done, but not very heady. The plot: a struggling writer travels with his fiancé and her wealthy parents to Paris. The writer and his wife often have diverging interests, and one night on his own he wanders out into the Parisian streets and finds himself in 1920s Paris, with Fitzgerald, Zelda, Hemingway, Picasso, and many others. These are people he idolizes, and he idolizes the Paris of the so-called lost generation in general. Traveling back and forth from past to present (the film never bothers to explain how he manages this), the writer explores questions of artistic and personal commitment, of the real and the fanciful, and so on. The film comes to a conclusion that will ring familiar to Allen’s fans, but at least it’s an amusing journey.
Allen has often shown his interests in intellectuals and in artists (some might say artistic celebrities). He admires as well as derides. In Midnight in Paris his particular target is a self-important art historian who never stops talking, over-interpreting practically everything he encounters. Allen’s treatment of the artists and writers is satiric, and we don’t get much from our encounters with them other than some humor. Hemingway in particular cannot speak without mocking his own famous writing style and code, and it’s clear that both Allen and Corey Stoll (who plays the writer) enjoy the fun. The appearances of these artistic luminaries is more a form of quotation than an effort to say something about art. Eliot and Gertrude Stein and Bunuel and Cole Porter and Salvador Dali pass through, and the audience says to itself (sometimes aloud in the case of the audience I saw the film with, which included many English majors) “there’s Eliot and Stein and Man Ray and Porter and Dali.” The thrill comes from recognizing those figures at the heart of our own romantic and self-congratulatory obsessions with the artists and writers we study.
Kathy Bates as Stein is memorable, but my favorite among the artists was Dali, as played by Adrien Brody, obsessed with the hippopotamus.
A more obscure film about 1920s Paris with more to say about authenticity and the meaning of art is The Moderns (1988).