Woody Allen still believes in movie magic. His latest film, Midnight in Paris, requires no CGI or pyrotechnics to transport his main character, Gil (played in great neurotic bursts by Owen Wilson) back to the jazz age of the 1920s. Only the sound of church bells marks the change, when suddenly an old car appears and Gil is whisked inside, taken to a roaring party where Cole Porter sings at the piano and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald draw Gil into his world.
It’s Gil’s dream coming true. Gil is an American writer who once lived in Paris and regrets ever leaving. Instead of inspired years walking the Paris streets, he moved to California, became a very successful “Hollywood hack,” and is now poised to marry the self-centered Inez, played brilliantly by Rachel McAdams. Inez wants to enjoy their trip and go back home, marry, and settle down to a luxury life in Malibu. While she and her obnoxious mother press Gil to buy $18,000 dining room chairs, his heart departs for the Paris streets, and Allen presents the city to us in all its glory, unapologetically showing off the clichés of the city with beautiful cinematography. David Denby, writing about the film in the New Yorker, observes, “[Allen] seems to be saying, “Yes, these are clichés, but they’ve become clichés because this is the most beautiful place on earth.”
During their trip to Paris, the rift between Gil’s romanticism and Inez’s realism is continually exposed, and they begin drifting in different directions. Paul, an old flame of Inez’s, shows up with a strong dose of pseudo-intellectualism, using the streets and museums as a prop to continually pontificate. Everyone who runs across him finds him pedantic except Inez, and the rift between her and Gil grows wider. (Like other pseudo-intellectuals in Allen’s films, Paul is thoroughly skewered before too long.)
Each night Gil returns to the streets, and finds himself again in the 1920s, wondering aloud about his career, his novel, and his discontent. Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, Salvador Dali, and Ernest Hemingway listen, encourage him, and welcome him into their inner circle. Corey Stoll is hilarious as Hemingway, perpetually talking about death, love, and courage, swilling wine and asking if anyone will fight him. He confronts Gil’s weakness and fear, challenging him to make the brave decision, whatever that particular decision might be. One scene in particular seems like a glimpse inside the mind of any artist (or perhaps even Allen himself), where Gil airs all of his fears about success and failure in work and love, and Hemingway confronts him in bursts of characteristic prose, pushing him onward.
When whisked away in time, Gil doesn’t escape to the real roaring twenties. Instead, it’s an idealized world, perfectly tailored (by either his imagination or the power of movie magic) to prepare him to make his bold decision (ending his dead-end engagement and leaving his career as a movie hack). It’s a funny take on providence; something had to intervene to prepare Gil to make the fearless decision. For him it comes from the affirmation of Gertrude Stein and the punch in the gut from Ernest Hemingway. Artists battle fear constantly; fear their work is actually bad, fear they’ll be rejected, fear they’ll be forgotten. Allen’s world of the twenties seems like a laboratory for overcoming that fear.
Of course, real life doesn’t work that way, but we can be reminded by this fairy tale of the value that community contributes to creativity. We need mentors (like Stein) and brutally honest critics (like Hemmingway) whom we allow to speak into our work. This, of course, is true in any field, but is particularly true for creatives.
Gil eventually meets Adriana, a beautiful girl who’s taken up with Picasso. Just as he begins to dream of staying with her in the twenties, she confesses her own nostalgic longing for the turn of the century, the “Belle Epoque,” which she sees as the golden age of Paris. When they’re magically drawn back into that era, Gil begins to see that any era will be unsatisfying “because life is a little unsatisfying,” as he tells Adriana. In a moment that is pure Woody Allen, he says, after all, “these people don’t have antibiotics.” Thus Gil’s romantic love of the past is revealed, ultimately, to be escapist and disappointing.
Still, he finally follows his dreams to stay in Paris, and by all appearances, is better and happier for it. Romanticism points to a deep discontent in the human heart for a better time, a better age, and a better way of living. Creative angst is a powerful force, driving an inventor to build a better widget or an artist to tell a better story. It can also be an endless rabbit trail that leads us to conclude with the author of Ecclesiastes that there must be something more satisfying than money, power, and sex.
Allen’s conclusion—in this film and others—is lowered expectations. There is no “Golden Age,” only life, which was as full of dissatisfaction in the past as it is now. Christians shouldn’t be too quick to toss this conclusion off as fatalistic or too humanist. We live an incredibly narcissistic time where our expectations for life, love, marriage, and happiness are grandiose. We throw holy water on narcissism and count on our religious lives to generate the results we want. We romanticize all kinds of “Golden Ages” or “Golden Relationships,” imagining that Christian celebrities and leaders have the perfect lives we want, wishing we could step into their world, and imagining that the right combination of circumstances and religious obedience could earn them for us. “If I were married to (blank),” “If I worked at (blank).” Such narcissism needs the gospel to remind us that there has yet to be a “golden age” or a perfect situation, and that sin’s effects make all of life “a little unsatisfying.” We would do well to simply expect a little less.
The irony is that such an acceptance actually frees us to be more present to our given circumstances. If an ideal world is impossibly out of reach, we may as well make the most of whatever place we occupy. Getting our head out of the clouds of “what if” can open our eyes to what’s really occurring around us, and it frees us to be fully invested in where we are.
It also gives us a greater reason for hope. Movies rarely tell the “whole” story. It could be that Gil’s decision to stay in Paris merely delays his ultimate unhappiness a bit longer, and soon he’ll be looking for satisfaction somewhere else. That would be true to life, but it’s not necessarily a good story. Happy endings in movies ring a little false because a million things can go wrong. The beautiful French woman Gil meets at the end could be a complete lunatic. Or he could get robbed on the Metro the next day. Or his book could flop.
We either have to see the happy endings of movies as deeply flawed, as though there were an asterisk indicating, *of course, great tragedy is inevitable in the near future. Or we could see them as indicative of the human heart’s need for resolution. Happy endings, in that sense, are always eschatological. While we acknowledge that there has yet to be a golden age, every time a hero rides off into the sunset or a couple finds love just as the closing credits begin to roll, it’s a stammering effort within creation to say, “Come, Lord Jesus.” It’s a whisper of hope, longing for the day when all of our stories find a satisfying and joy-filled conclusion.
That will truly be a Belle Epoque.