Midnight in Paris is a love letter to Paris just like Manhattan was a love letter to Manhattan. The film begins with shots of the city much like Manhattan and also like The 400 Blows. There’s no accompanying narration as there was in Manhattan, but we get a similar feeling from the sequence regardless.
We see the city full of life, but then it starts to rain, and we see shots of an almost empty city as everyone has rushed inside. The rain becomes more meaningful the more we listen to Gil (Owen Wilson) talk about how beautiful Paris is in the rain.
Gil is a writer on vacation with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her wealthy parents. They’re a wealthy couple, too. Gil is a successful yet unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter, and all Inez seems to care about is where in Malibu they will live.
Early in the film we see them standing side by side on the small, arched green bridge made famous in a Monet painting (I think…).
Inez tells Gil, “You’re in love with a fantasy,” to which he replies, “I’m in love with you.” So we’re introduced to the couple inside of a picturesque painting. They’re already in the fantasy, much like the characters of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Gil is seduced by the Parisian fantasy that surrounds them while Inez is not.
Actually, I take that back. Inez is in love with a fantasy, but it’s the fantasy that Gil’s financial success affords them: a luxurious life of travel and a home somewhere in Beverly Hills.
This opening shot shows us that on paper this should be a happy couple, and they certainly play the part. They dress in a similar color palette, and their hair is similarly coiffed. But we soon learn there is a distance between them, only they don’t know it yet.
Inez’ parents are unbearable, and her friend Paul (Michael Sheen) is similarly unbearable. Gil doesn’t fit in with the pseudo-intellectual wine-drinking upper class, so it’s a wonder how he got there in the first place. He seems so miserable with them.
One night, while walking alone through the empty city streets, Gil stumbles upon an old car from the 1920s. He gets in and has the night of his live, meeting F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Picasso, Gertrude Stein and a beautiful woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard).
Gil has written a novel about someone who runs a nostalgia shop and yearns for just this time period, so this is perfect. It’s extremely coincidental, of course, and not just because of the magic involved, but there is no better person to stumble upon a portal into this era.
It would be like a classified government letter falling out of Air Force One and right into Edward Snowden’s mailbox.
But we go along with the premise, at least I did, because it’s so joyous and intoxicating. Gil is in a dream, and it’s easy to put yourself in his place and imagine how amazing and trippy this would be.
This becomes a nightly ritual as Gil returns to flirt with Adriana and get Hemingway and Gertrude Stein’s feedback on his novel. It also contrasts so heavily with his days in modern Paris, tortured by time spent with Inez’ friend Paul and her parents.
Oddly enough, though, Gil never seems that bothered by Inez’ indifference towards him or her parents loathing of him. It’s very noticeable, and it makes us as the audience dislike those characters, but Gil is constantly drunk off his nightly time traveling that he hardly notices or cares.
He tries to take Inez with him on the second night, but that’s before he realizes the time portal only opens at midnight, so she leaves before the car can come to pick them up.
Gil discovers Adriana’s diary in the present day (another extreme coincidence yet it works), and she has written that she loves Gil. So he buys hear earrings and wins her heart. Together they discover yet another time portal, this one to the 1890s, and Adriana is seduced by that era just like Gil is by the 1920s.
She says she never wants to leave, and Gil tells her he’s from 2010 and has to go back. Gil realizes that people will always yearn for a time before them as the people of the 1890s yearn for the Renaissance.
So Gil returns to the present and after Hemingway helps him realize Inez is having an affair with Paul, Gil breaks up with her, electing to live in Paris. While walking along the streets that night he runs into an attractive woman named Gabrielle (Carla Bruni) whom we briefly met earlier. He walks her home as it starts to rain.
This whole film feels like a great dream. There are so many coincidences, but they all seem to be manifestations of Gil’s wildest dream. When he stumbles into his favorite era, of course he meets all of these famous artists. In addition to the ones mentioned already he even runs into Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, among others.
Gil is in such awe of the city, the time period, the people, etc. He loves it all, and he embraces it all. He’d be the perfect audience member for a magic show. He’d be the person volunteering to go up onstage.
Inez and her family are the opposite. They’re the people who travel to a far away country only to stay in the American-ized resort.
And Paul spouts knowledge of artists that he’s gathered over years of reading, but it’s inflated his ego to know so much. He reads it, and Gil lives it, like Robin Williams’ monologue in Good Will Hunting about reading about something versus witnessing it first hand.
When Gil corrects Paul’s misinformation on one of Picasso’s paintings, he takes glee in it, and so do we. It’s like when Woody Allen corrects someone in line at a movie in Annie Hall. The other person is loud with his opinions, and he paraphrases Marshall McLuhan, but Alvy is able to correct him by inexplicably bringing out the real Marshall McLuhan to correct the man’s misinformation.
It’s like a writer’s fantasy or anyone’s I suppose.
So the whole movie is a gift to Gil. He reaches out to the city of Paris, and it reaches back. It helps make the city feel warm, inviting and exciting, just the way he’s always seen it. This film feels much more about faith than Allen’s previous, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, which he has said is about faith.
Gil never expects a time portal to open, but he knows that Paris is a city where things will happen, even though he has no way of knowing that. He appreciates the city in a way none of the other characters do, and the city rewards him for such affection. It’s like the city just matches his enthusiasm.
Gil hugs the city, and it hugs him right back. Along the way it helps him grow and learn to be comfortable in the present, taking in modern day Paris the way he had been taking in the past.
The film ends with Gil and Gabrielle in perfect harmony, as if they’ve known each other for years. Gabrielle looks like she’s in a painting, with the soft lights outlining her hair, and the rain beginning to fall. It’s a perfect, albeit unlikely moment, but it’s the city smiling down upon Gil. In return, Gil channels all the beauty he feels about Paris into Gabrielle, so that she’s smothered in warm, inviting light and Gil’s favorite weather phenomenon: rain.
I forgot how warm the entire film is, visually. It’s like every light bulk on set was yellow, and it helps to emphasize the dreamlike quality. I keep going back to this, but it feels like the movie is a warm blanket hugging you while you sit by a fire.
The city is plenty of comfort for Gil whereas Inez and her parents insulate themselves from the city, spending more time in their robes than out in the world.
This film is also dramatically better than a number of other Woody Allen post-2000 films. I don’t know where it stands in his filmography as a whole (though I do know it was financially successful), but there is so much love and attention to detail in this movie. It feels that way at least.
The soundtrack is mixed in with the visual aesthetics like a smoothie. It’s not just placed on top like a temp score. The acting and the characters are grand, the camera carefully moves through the dream-space and the music acts as the story’s heartbeat.
This feels like a passion project which is kind of amazing considering this was made over 40 years into Woody Allen’s film career.