Watching Woody Allen's latest film 'Midnight in Paris,' about an aspiring writer who magically finds himself transported to another time, I felt that warm sense of comfort that accompanies the realisation that I'm not completely neurotic. Or if I am, then I'm certainly not the only one.
The protagonist, played by Owen Wilson, is earnest, naïve, idealistic. It felt, in fact, a lot like he was playing Woody Allen himself; that sweetly endearing boy, wavering on self-confidence, stammering uncontrollably in the presence of a pretty girl, but witty and insightful nonetheless. Makes you miss seeing Woody onscreen - no one plays Woody better than Woody. But Owen Wilson's fresh innocence earns itself a spot in your heart.
He is engaged to Rachel McAdams, who in contrast to her usual roles, is delightful in her portrayal of the shrewish and materialistic fiancée. From the very first scene, it is easy to hate everything about her. She constantly criticizes his writing in public, talks down to him, and rubbishes his dreamy love affair with the city of Paris.
The film finds the couple together on a short trip in Paris, but she seems happier at wine-tasting parties and shopping at the Marché aux puces, than indulging his nostalgia or romantic plans of walking together through the rain-drenched streets of Paris. Wilson is fascinated with the Paris of the 1920's and its legacy of the Golden Age. Home to the Lost Generation at a time when intellect and talent came together like a tangible rush of creativity, Wilson sees the past as richer and more meaningful than the present.
One evening, as he walks along a quiet road, a car draws up and the passengers boisterously invite him in. Watching this scene is the singular most delicious moment of the movie. Not because of great cinematography, but because it is that Classic Woody Allen moment, so trademark to his style. A moment bursting with promise, and poised on the edge of something spectacular. That moment of happy coincidence, or quirky accident, that transforms a good story into a truly great one.
Like you see in the trailer, Wilson joins the revelers and is transported to the Paris of the 20s. He finds himself at a party with Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, and joins them at a bar where he encounters Hemingway. Wilson couldn't be happier; he feels like he belongs here, in this golden age, sharing drinks and ideas with the men who would soon become the greatest names in the literature, music and art of the century. Hemingway introduces him to Gertrude Stein, known for her impeccable taste and famous friendship with Hemingway, and she agrees to take a look at Wilson's manuscript. He also meets Picasso and his beautiful lover, played by the ethereal Marion Cotillard, to whom Wilson is inexorably drawn. As Cotillard becomes close to Wilson, she shares a story that is uncannily similar to his. She speaks with wistful longing of the Paris a few decades before her time, the Belle Epoque of Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas. She is filled with regret at not being part of this period when life was simpler, and pleasure more saturated.
Without giving the story away, let me assure you that it's a wonderful movie. And an absolute treat to see Allen weave his familiar brand of magic again. What struck a chord though, was theme of the movie — that feeling we all have, at one point or another — that the past is so much more alluring, more substantial than the drab present, and that maybe we would have been happier in an earlier time. For me, growing up on the music of the Beatles and old recordings of Top of the Pops, music videos with big hair and breezy floral dresses, and stories of outrageously idyll days by Peter Colaco, I felt deeply cheated at being born a few decades too late. I wanted nothing more than to be a flower child, living on love and fresh air.
Woody Allen, notorious for his eccentricities, celebrates the oddball in himself with every movie he makes. Here too, he is unabashed in his portrayal of peculiarity. As he indulges his protagonist's quirkiness, he also makes you love him. He holds up a mirror to the strangest parts of ourselves and shows us that it's okay to be different, shows us wisdom alongside the whimsical.
Do you sometimes wish you were born at an earlier time? Tell us about it.