Midnight in Paris Re-Release: A Nostalgia For a Life He Had Never Lived

This article originally appeared on Capital New York.

Midnight in Paris opened in May. So far, it has made over $50 million in the United States alone, making it Woody Allen’s biggest box office success. Sony Pictures has decided to re-release the film in 500 theatres, starting today, hoping to cash in even more as the summer blockbuster season wanes. I loved Midnight in Paris, found it pretty profound, not at all “light” fare (but then again, I’m someone who considers Manhattan Murder Mystery to be his masterpiece, which puts me in rare rare and often scorned company). I wrote about the film and this development for Capital New York.

Woody Allen makes, on average, a movie a year. Given such an output, not every movie is going to be a masterpiece, and Allen seems fine with that. There is something to be said for Stanley Kubrick’s or Terrence Malick’s pace, directors who develop projects for sometimes decades, but Allen has always been up to something different. He has his hits, he has his misses (Cassandra’s Dream, anyone?), and he keeps on working.

The slapdash feeling of his late career puzzles people. A film comes out, and people still wonder why it’s not Annie Hall. The professional legacy of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and her Sisters is impossible to live up to, and Allen’s films are rarely big box-office hits anyway. Which is why the story of his latest, Midnight in Paris is so significant.

Midnight in Paris is Allen’s 41st film. It opened the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and opened in the U.S. in May. Some reviewers reflexively pooh-pooh Allen’s lighter fare. The indispensable James Berardinelli ends his three-star review of the film with,

Words like ‘pleasant’, ‘enjoyable’, and ‘undemanding’ apply to Midnight in Paris, although some may consider that damning with faint praise—especially those who look to Woody Allen to cast a cynical eye on the foibles of a man in love. Allen’s movies often deal with love and sex and, although he often dabbles in nostalgia, rarely does he do so with such unabashed romanticism. Midnight in Paris does not challenge greatness, but it’s a nice, low-key way to spend 100 minutes.

Berardinelli captures the high expectations that have dogged Allen’s career, and the vague feeling of disappointment that greets his current projects that don’t seem “important.”

Midnight in Paris has made $50 million dollars in the U.S. alone, and is Woody Allen’s most profitable movie to date, surpassing Hannah and her Sisters. It had a limited original release in America (just 400 theaters), but since the movie is still selling tickets after months of being in circulation, Sony Pictures Classics has decided to re-release it in 500 theatres on August 26. Sony executives hope the film can find its second wind, as the blockbusters move off the screen in preparation for fall. Sony has also been open about its hopes for the film for Oscar season. The summer movie season is filled with robots and 3-D extravaganzas, meaning that movies like Midnight in Paris often get lost in the shuffle. The fact that audiences have made it their business to go see this movie indicates that it is perhaps something more than a “nice, low-key way to spend 100 minutes.”

Woody Allen’s films often deal with nostalgia. Radio Days was an elegy for his lost childhood, Broadway Danny Rose was a black-and-white comedy mourning the loss of the old-timey, tough Broadway talent agents and producers in the days of vaudeville. The brilliant Bullets Over Broadway brought us back into the 1920s theater scene in New York City. Even Crimes and Misdemeanors, with its brutal tale of a man who murders his mistress and gets away with it, is a wail of loss for simpler days, before the world turned ruthless.

Nostalgia can be tricky. If you live only in the past, you are a fantasist who imagines things were better back in some mythical Golden Age. But there are also beautiful things in the past, and to forget these things in the rush of modern life means we forget the most valuable parts of ourselves.

This is the landscape Midnight in Paris occupies. The film starts with a voiceover, Gil (Owen Wilson, playing a damn good Allen alter-ego), praising the beauties of Paris, and how much he wants to live there, and how amazing it must have been to live in Paris in the 1920s with all of those great American ex-pat writers. Allen’s not trying to sneak up on us here. He lays the premise out right from the beginning.

Gil is engaged to be married to Inez (Rachel McAdams), who is, to put it mildly, not suitable for him. She barely seems to like him, let alone love him, but she appreciates his status as a successful Hollywood screenwriter, and scoffs at his desire to move to Paris and work on his novel. It is not clear if the book Gil has written (about a man who works in a “nostalgia shop”) is any good. But what is clear is his idolization of the writers who gathered in Paris in the 1920s and, through bravado, talent, and sheer force of will, created modern literature. The old forms cracked and fell away in the wake of World War I. Artists attempted to find language appropriate to their shattered world. Painters, composers, novelists, poets, expressed the giant shattering their generation experienced. Many of these writers worked in isolation, but many gathered in Paris. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, H.D. and Amy Lowell congregated at Sylvia Beach’s Left Bank bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, and worked and fought and drank.

Gil’s enthusiasm for this era is not shared by his fiancée, who treats his romantic outbursts with wary derision. Gil says at one point to Inez and another couple, “I had a professor in college who once was in Paris and he came across James Joyce who was sitting in a café and he was eating sauerkraut and a hot dog.” The group waits to see if there is more to the story, but no, Gil is just amazed at knowing someone who had actually seen James Joyce in the flesh, and how incredible it was that the genius was eating sauerkraut! Sauerkraut, imagine!

In her comic novel The Fiery Pantheon, Nancy Lemann writes, “She had a nostalgia for a life she had never lived.”

This is Gil’s dilemma.

One night, on a drunken, solitary walk back to the hotel, Gil gets lost. He finds himself in an isolated square, and as the clock strikes midnight, a gleaming car pulls up, clearly of 1920s vintage, and a group of laughing people entreat him to join their group. Baffled, he does, and finds himself at a party. Gil is not sure what has happened, but when a charming young couple come up to him and introduce themselves as “Scott and Zelda,” he starts to understand. Not only do these legends make him feel welcome, they introduce him to their wide circle of friends.

Gil meets Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), T.S. Eliot (David Lowe), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Man Ray (Tom Cordier), Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van – one of the funniest moments in the movie has Gil giving Buñuel the idea for Exterminating Angel: Gil: “I’ve got an idea for a movie for you. A bunch of people come to a dinner party but when they try to leave … they can’t.” Buñuel: “I don’t get it. Why can’t they leave?”).

Over a series of nights, as Inez grows more and more suspicious, Gil meets up with his friends in the past. Ernest Hemingway suggests Gil give his book to Gertrude Stein to critique. Gil falls in love with a French woman, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who has been the lover of every famous painter in town, and she, too, is infected with the nostalgia curse, only she wants to live in Belle Epoque Paris. Nobody is ever satisfied with where they are. Adriana lives in Gil’s Golden Age, but Adriana’s Golden Age is elsewhere.

A strangely hopeful movie (Woody Allen? Hopeful?), it’s really a fairy tale about finding a life appropriate for your spirit and sensibility, and surrounding yourself with a like-minded tribe. It’s best to find other nerds who will gasp in amazement at the image of James Joyce eating sauerkraut. Then you won’t feel so alone in the world.

There’s a deep, powerful keen of longing in Midnight in Paris. One of the most moving aspects of the story is that the ex-pat idols Gil meets not only welcome him into their circle, but validate him and encourage him. It is the ultimate fantasy. A more cynical Woody Allen would have had Gil meet F. Scott Fitzgerald and find him to be an egotistical bore. Ernest Hemingway would have vomited on his shoes, and the statues would have shown their clay feet. But Midnight in Paris is up to something else, something much more redemptive. The idols are not only just how you would imagine them, but they are better. Generous, funny, and open to the interloper amongst them. Silly? Perhaps. But when we “put away childish things” so completely, when we scorn all that is “silly”, we often miss the whole point of life.

At one point, in the present day, the insufferably “pedantic” Paul (Michael Sheen) says to Gil “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.”

Woody Allen’s overall response to that is: “Yeah? So?”

What I loved about Midnight in Paris is that it takes the view that nostalgia, so often scorned as childish and unrealistic, is actually the wellspring of art. The very impulse to put something down on paper, capture a moment forever in a photograph or painting, is a nostalgic act. This moment – right now – is important and it is already passing. Proust accessed his memories through the senses, smells and sounds launching him back into a precious past. We all die. This knowledge can be daunting, paralyzing, as Ernest Hemingway says to Gil at one point: “All men fear death. It’s a natural fear that consumes us all. We fear death because we feel that we haven’t loved well enough or loved at all, which ultimately are one and the same.”

And those idols we have sometimes do hold up a lantern in a dark tunnel showing us the way, if we let them. It is possible for writers today to find inspiration in James Joyce’s increasing blindness, as he tormented himself over commas in Finnegans Wake, and in the lives of Charlotte Brontë, Yeats, Tennessee Williams, and, yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald. These people, flawed and human as they all were (who isn’t?), are also a power source for those who have come after, and Woody Allen comes off as wistful in imagining these encounters between Gil and the great Modernist writers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it would go like this? Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

Owen Wilson turns in a funny and very vulnerable performance with that hint of sadness he brings to almost everything he does. You might miss it because of his comedic gifts and lackadaisical-goofball air, but it’s always been there. Even in the silly singing scene in Starsky and Hutch, it’s there. At one point in Midnight in Paris, during a silent walk with the beautiful Adriana, she looks up at him and says, “What is it? Your face is so sad.”

It’s not easy having nostalgia for a life you have never lived.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most nostalgic of writers, ended The Great Gatsby, with the unforgettable line “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Jay Gatsby, a man caught in the past, yet fixated on a future that turns out to be nothing but a phantom, is the dark side of nostalgia, something F. Scott Fitzgerald knew a lot about.

Fitzgerald was a success by the age of 22, and it created in him an expectation that all of life would be a neverending climb to ever-higher heights. (His essay “Early Success” addresses his unique situation.) In his younger years, he had a keen observational eye for what his generation was up to and what they were like. He not only tapped into the zeitgeist, but helped create it and explain it. Scott’s and Zelda’s Jazz Baby shenanigans made them famous, but also burned them out quickly. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of 44. His final years slogging it out as a screenwriter in Hollywood, tormented by the madness of his wife Zelda and his inability to compete with his earliest books, took its toll (as did his alcoholism). He only wrote five novels.

The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 and received good reviews, but didn’t sell nearly as well as This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned. It would be another nine years before he wrote another novel, Tender Is the Night. It got mixed reviews. Fitzgerald faced the diminishment of his early gleaming reputation. He died in 1940, mostly forgotten. He had been the voice of the “Jazz Age,” long past, a blip on the radar screen of the 20th century. The Great Gatsby was republished after his death, and went on to become one of the most important works of American literature. It’s a classic. F. Scott Fitzgerald died not knowing any of that would happen. He died a broken man, wondering where it all went, what happened to his talent.

In Midnight in Paris, we see him in all his glory, fresh-faced and charmingly polite, eager to please Zelda, a man with a zest for all that life has to offer. His Golden Age was tragically brief. Woody Allen goes for a moral in Midnight in Paris, which is fitting, because it’s a fairy tale. Stay in your own life, accept that you may be living in an age someone else considers to be Golden, and do your best not to miss a second of it.

There may be no “second acts in American lives,” as Fitzgerald put it, and Midnight in Paris isn’t Annie Hall.

But so what?

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15 Responses to Midnight in Paris Re-Release: A Nostalgia For a Life He Had Never Lived

  1. DBW says:

    I haven’t seen this yet. I’m one of those whose has mostly disappointed and underwhelmed by Woody’s recent output. You make this sound great, but, of course, you can make squirrel meat on an old bagel sound delicious–so… . Seriously, you know I am a dedicated child of nostalgia. The past is always further away than the future, and, unlike the future, there’s no chance you are going to experience those times again. Time often adds a golden hue to our memories. That’s the beauty and the pain. Plus, I love the idea that the present is always somebody’s ideal in the future. There’s a part in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden’s teacher tells him that a certain kind of young person(Holden being one)is always looking for a cause to die for, and that it takes a lot more courage to live quietly for the present, and(I think I’m remembering this correctly)he implies that the quiet path leads to a more complete and satisfying life. Something like that. Well, I really believe that to be true. We are sometimes unable to recognize how truly wonderful our own little lives are, and spend so much time looking elsewhere for meaning and satisfaction that we miss existences that are glorious gifts beyond any reasonable expectations. On the other hand, I would give anything to spend another hour back with my Grandparents circa 1966 or so. I’m intrigued that Woody, of all people, seems to be taking a positive tack in this movie. While he ususally has a cynical tone to his movies, he’s really a complete romantic at heart.

  2. DBW says:

    Wow-bad first sentence. I meant, “I’m one of those who has been mostly disappointed and underwhelmed by Woody’s recent output.”

  3. sheila says:

    DBW – you’re a romantic at heart. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. :) I share some of your feelings of nostalgia – I always attributed it to the Irish love affair with the past, and also my upbringing – which was suffused with history – but I know from my friends that it is common, a very very human thing. The trap is thinking that things were better “back then” – you know the “what happened to people being polite” brigade – but then they miss every time a man holds open a door for you, every time a bus driver says, “have a nice day” – every small act of kindness going on all around them. They see those small acts as the exceptions rather than the rule. Politeness is alive and well and living all around us, and those who continuously complain about how rude everyone is “nowadays” are probably bringing it on themselves.

    But I love the sense that history is real – that I can research someone like Fitzgerald or Charlotte Bronte or hell Cary Grant- and they can actually start to seem real to me. They lived, they worked, their lives are examples.

    The past is not to be thrown away (thank you, Edmund Burke).

    And yes: this is such a romantic movie, but there’s a sadness there, too – it’s made by a man now old, who knows that much of this is folly, but he’s letting himself live the dream a little bit. It’s a very very moving film. I think you’ll love it. Try to check it out and come back and tell me what you think.

  4. sheila says:

    And squirrel meat on old bagels! Yum!

  5. sheila says:

    And believe me, I’ve had my moments with Woody where I think, “Really, dude? This is what you’re giving me??” But I keep going back. It’s really an amazing body of work, when looked at as a whole. No other career really like it.

  6. sheila says:

    Also, there’s the inherent sadness in that we all know the end of these brilliant vibrant artists – Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, Hemingway … Tragic lives, in the end. To see them flush in their youth, through Woody’s imagination, is both sweet and painful. They, too, are caught in their own Golden Age and they do not know yet that it cannot last forever.

  7. Steven says:

    Oh my god… I love Manhattan Murder Mystery, too. It’s so zany… I have a total spaz attack when Diane Keaton’s under the bed. It’s too much for me.

  8. sheila says:

    Steven – Totally the best. How about Anjelica Huston? There is so much I love about that movie, I don’t even know where to start!!

  9. george says:


    Liked the review, not least of which re Midnight in Paris isn’t Annie Hall – But so what?

    Loved the defense of nostalgia, not least of which: Yeah? So?

  10. sheila says:

    George – thank you! Have you seen it?

  11. george says:


    Have not seen it, but have read several reviews only because Allen’s such a lightning rod. I think more than any director, every new effort of his seems to elicit some comparison that X not as as good as Y or Z. Outside of box office considerations (popularity), I never got the point of that – unless he’s made a remake why compare it to a different movie?

    And having mentioned box office, I found this in one of the reviews and found it interesting: grosses of Allen’s last three American movies — “Melinda and Melinda” ($3.8 million), “Anything Else” ($3 million) and “Hollywood Ending” ($4.8 million). Grosses of his last three movies – all Euro based: “Match Point” ($23 million), “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” ($23 million) and “Scoop” ($10 million) – and now an even bigger hit, I suspect, with Midnight In Paris. Whether it’s coincidence, a change of scenery from NY to Europe, or a matter of Allen having found a new audience to play to, I don’t know, but I didn’t at all care for Melinda and Melinda and liked Vicky Cristina Barcelona, have Match Point in my queue will definitely see MIP and I’ll be surprised if I don’t like it.

    One last thing, I’m with you on Manhattan Murder Mystery.

  12. Clint says:

    Hi Sheila. Just wanted to point out a little mistake in your review. The idea that Gil tells Bunuel is not The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but The Exterminating Angel.

  13. sheila says:

    The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is also about a dinner party that never ends and, actually, barely begins. All civilization is stripped away until the guests become veritable animals (the dude under the table grabbing for a hunk of ham while hidden). They keep trying to finish (or even start) their meal but they cannot.

  14. sheila says:

    George: Manhattan Murder Mystery is my favorite of his movies. I think Another Woman is second in my affection – it certainly contains a couple of my favorite performances of all time. Great cameos, too – unforgettable ones by Betty Buckley, Gene Hackman, Sandy Dennis – love that movie!!

    I liked Match Point a lot – wanted to like Melinda and Melinda but found it boring and contrived – I was so bummed out Cassandra’s Dream wasn’t better, especially with Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell – who were kind of wonderful, but who cares? Maybe yes, the love that Europe has for him, and the freedom he feels there … has helped his work. Midnight in Paris has a real ease to it, almost a childlike sense of fun and nostalgia. really vulnerable movie. I loved it!

  15. sheila says:

    This spring, the 92nd St Y had a screening of Manhattan Murder Mystery with a panel of film critics to talk about it afterwards. I went with a friend of mine, and it was a blast! I saw it when it first came out in the theatre: my friend Mitchell and I went, and the theatre was nearly empty, and I remember us almost falling out of the chairs with laughter. I haven’t seen it on the big screen since. My friend had never seen it and hearing her HOWLS of laughter beside me made me realize, for the 100th time, just how damn well that movie works. It is magic.

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