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Life is a Dream

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, an unfulfilled artist finds refuge in the past

Dreams giving way to realities that fan and spiral into new dreams, spells cast and lifted, beliefs dismantled, expectations realigned. As Woody Allen has followed his impulses and insights and desires and inspirations through six decades and over 40 films, he has charted the terrain of consciousness as it projects and rejects and shatters and reassembles, erecting structures that seem rock solid only to watch them crumble, and repeating the exercise. It’s fascinating to look back on so many films and see the psychic mechanism explored from so many angles. Sometimes a character goes looking to solve one problem and opens the door to another, bigger one, as Alice does during her visits to the Chinese herbalist. Sometimes the characters are caught unawares and jolted into an altered state wherein everything familiar becomes strange, like Gena Rowlands’s philosopher in Another Woman (88). Often they find themselves in the thrall of an obsession, only to wake up as if from a dream, like Michael Caine’s dutiful husband who falls violently in and gently out of love with his wife’s sister (“I don’t know what came over me. The complete conviction that I couldn’t live without you: what I put us both through…”) or, far more troublingly, Martin Landau’s Judah Rosenthal, who calmly explains, after his “crisis” has passed, that “in reality we rationalize. We deny, or we couldn’t go on living.”

On many occasions, the spell is cast on the audience, summoned by the director or the characters or both. “This girl singing used to be a favorite at my house,” narrates Allen at the beginning of Radio Days (87), “one of many. Now it’s all gone. Except for the memories. The scene is Rockaway. The time is my childhood.” Allen always makes us aware of the transitory, only to feel the poignancy of the spell that much more keenly. Rowlands’s Marion remembers Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”—“For here there is no place / That does not see you. You must change your life”—but Allen’s greater body of work, that treasure chest of moods and grace-notes and beautiful illusions and delusions and chilling actions and reactions, finds an echo and perhaps an inspiration in Rilke’s first Duino Elegy with its tribute to lovers, whose inexhaustible range of feeling “is far from immortal enough” before they are taken back “by exhausted Nature / into herself, as though such creative force could never / be re-exerted.” The lasting is housed in the memory of the ephemeral—something we learn over and over again in Allen’s work.

The opening montage of Midnight in Paris is bound to elicit comparisons with the glorious city-symphony in miniature of Manhattan (79), and, perhaps on first viewing, some puzzlement. Where the earlier film builds to a magnificent crescendo in heart-stopping rhythm with “Rhapsody in Blue,” Midnight’s opening, set to Sidney Bechet’s “Si tu vois ma mère,” is more mysterious. As we shuffle through these vistas of Paris, we look in vain for the spark of romance, the perfect gesture or arrangement of forms and colors that will instantly evoke the image, the Paris of accumulated legend—impressionism x Atget x the New Wave. The distances remain too great, the light a little too flat and uniform, the music a little too teasing. It’s not that Allen has chosen the least picturesque parts of Paris, but that he’s photographed and arranged the areas we do know, however handsomely, as empty vessels waiting to be filled. In Manhattan, the character projects his own longings and desires onto the city (“To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin”), and he is obviously in perfect concert with the director. Here, there is no voiceover, and the director is quietly and assuredly laying the groundwork for a film that, we will soon see, is all about romantic projection.

We are in a five-star Paris hotel with a young American couple played by Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams. As in recent Allen films, information is established quickly and cleanly. He is a successful screenwriter, prosperous but dissatisfied. She is lovely but schedule- and result-minded. Where he ruminates and muses, she acquires information and sees sights. He responds to her and her like-minded parents the way all dreamers do—with polite agreement and withdrawal. He soon has to reinforce the battlements with the appearance of his fiancée’s old professor (Michael Sheen), an expert on everything, who never misses an opportunity to share his knowledge with the less-informed. One night, weary of defending his spiritual stronghold against pedantry on the one hand and the standardization and quantification of experience on the other, he begs off and goes wandering through Paris, in search of the city of his imagination. He stands, silent and alone, on a quiet street corner when a vintage car pulls up. The couple inside, clad in Twenties evening wear, beckons him to climb in. Their names are Scott and Zelda.

Part of the beauty of Allen’s forays into the uncanny is that they’re left playfully unexplained. When Jeff Daniels steps down from the movie screen, when the inventor’s magic lantern starts projecting phantom images of desire into the midsummer night, when Alice has an herbally enhanced visitation from her dead lover, we’re left in the same gray area that Kubrick entered when Jack Nicholson was let out of the dry-goods closet in The Shining, or that Bergman visited when Erland Josephson temporarily transported Fanny and Alexander back to their room in the director’s magnum opus. We’re allowed to experience the flights in which imagination and yearning provoke and project us without waiting for the hammer of reason to fall, so the question of whether we’re watching, say, a movie about a woman escaping from a humdrum life and an oppressive husband or a man who wanders out of the cinema and into reality is rendered happily moot. These supernatural transformations and visions are all of a piece with that signature moment by the 59th Street Bridge in Manhattan or Josh Brolin pining for the girl across the courtyard in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (10) or the disappearance of the old lady next door, as if on cue to inject some adventure into Woody and Diane’s marriage, in Manhattan Murder Mystery (93). Magic comes in all shapes and sizes.

Sometimes it seems as if Allen has explored every shade of longing in Western man—for deliverance from the disappointments of the present, for transport to another more fulfilling realm, for solace from the drudgeries of shared existence, for recovery of the past, for consummation of love, for a little bit of luck. And he’s looked at them in every register: playful (Alice, 90; A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, 82; Manhattan Murder Mystery), tough as nails (Husbands and Wives, 92), sardonic (Match Point, 05; Tall Dark Stranger), celebratory in the face of obsolescence (Radio Days, Broadway Danny Rose, 84), autumnal (Another Woman), or a musically modulated combination thereof (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, 86; Crimes and Misdemeanors, 89). In Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson’s Gil harbors complaints that will be familiar to anyone who knows Allen’s work. He looks disdainfully on his success as a screenwriter and pins all his hopes on his novel about the proprietor of a nostalgia shop; he regrets the fact that he missed an opportunity to live in Paris as a young man; he feels like he was born at the wrong time. In Gil’s particular case, there is a hesitancy about following his best impulses, a lingering sense that his fiancée and her parents might just be right, that maybe he should stick to doing more of what he does so well and leave it at that, that he doesn’t deserve to live as he wants to but as he should.

At this point, it must be said that Owen Wilson brings something new to Allen’s universe. On a purely technical level, unlike Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity (98) or Edward Norton in Everyone Says I Love You (96), he makes Allen’s overlapping dialogue his own, slowing the rhythm down to the speed of his own plaintive yearning. And unlike many more Allen heroes (most of them played by Allen himself), Wilson softens the passive-aggressive edge. When he cheerfully explains that calling McAdams’s father a “demented lunatic” for supporting the Tea Party is all in the spirit of democratic exchange, he seems to really mean it. He wants to make all the pieces fit together even if he knows in his heart of hearts that they won’t. Wilson suggests a genuinely intricate creative temperament at work, with his own private reserves of imagination and terror, struggling to carve out a haven for himself beyond the domain of Timetables and Goals.

Gil’s voice of sympathetic encouragement comes collectively from his artistic heroes. Hemingway and Fitzgerald treat him as equals. Dalí buys him a bottle of red wine, compares his sad eyes to those of a rhinoceros and introduces him to Buñuel and Man Ray (when the photographer readily accepts the idea of a man from the future fleeing to the past, Gil remarks, “I know, but you’re surrealists…”). Gertrude Stein makes encouraging comments about his novel. And he feels free to be supportive in turn. He assures Zelda that Scott really does love her (“Believe me, I know…”) and suggests a story to a perplexed Buñuel about guests who arrive for a dinner party and can’t leave (“But why can’t they leave? I don’t understand.”). And in his perfectly realized sympathetic universe, where the enveloping warmth and color of contemporary painting on the one hand and fellow feeling on the other are constant (thanks to Darius Khondji, they don’t settle over the action but breathe their way into it), he meets a woman named Adriana, sometime mistress of Modigliani, Braque, and Picasso (“You take ‘art groupie’ to a whole new level”), played by Marion Cotillard at her most enchanting. It’s Allen’s musical lightness of touch, his most underrated asset as an artist, that keeps these forays into the past aloft. Gallons of ink have been and will continue to be spilled about one-liners and comic “conceits” and Bergman influences and “literary” ironies and so on, and perhaps never enough about the delicacy with which Gil’s midnight excursions, or Cotillard’s evanescent charms within them, come and go with the graceful flow of this wise and lovely film, one of Allen’s most personal and most beautiful.

Speaking of bygone moments, there were years when we would all line up for the new Woody Allen movie the day it came out, and when those characters with their familiar habits and dilemmas and speech patterns and haunts seemed like family to us. Then some of us learned that we loved him too much, that like his hero Bergman he was clinging to shopworn notions of artistic excellence, that his New York was a careful construction, that intellectuals didn’t really talk that way, and so on and on and on—more dreams of young cinephiles with their reflexive distrust of the popular, their addiction to moralistic dismissals, their cultivation of the novel position at the expense of all else. And of course that’s all gone now too, as gone as the heyday of radio. First-run movies no longer open on 59th and 3rd, The New York Times (where Allen had a champion in Vincent Canby) is no longer the first and last word for every movie, the idea of New York that Allen celebrated has dissolved in the light of a less vibrant and more tourist-friendly city, and Allen has in some ways reinvented himself as a transcontinental filmmaker. Now, unencumbered by both extravagant worship and furious reproach, Allen’s films speak differently. To me, their preoccupations with grace, luck, and magic seem to align with the hidden longings of most of the people I know, their broad strokes seem all of a piece with their tonic simplicity and directness, and their gossamer touch is as bracing as their frankness about denial, rationalization, and the moral luck of the draw.

They’re also very funny.

Also, read Kent Jones’s uncut interview with Woody Allen.