Woody Allen won the 2012 Academy award for the best original screenplay for ‘Midnight in Paris’ – His fourth Oscar. He outshined, among other nominees, Asghar Farhadi who was nominated for ‘A Separation.’ Storylines in the two movies are however, in some respects at least, similar. Allen’s may be even seen as a post-modern sequel to Farhadi’s. In both, life is complicated and unsatisfying, and there is that chimerical notion of another age or place beholden as golden and enchanted.
In ‘Midnight in Paris’, Gil Pender, a Pasadena native living in Malibu, California, is a Hollywood screenplay writer who dreams of becoming an accomplished novelist. Only in Paris, he believes, aspiring writers can bring their brainchild to fruition. His fiancée, Inez, treats his ambition with utter disregard. Gil is dreamy, self-absorbed, eccentric, angst-ridden and even somewhat daffy – a Woody Allen double. Inez is a status-conscious, nouveau riche and seemingly shallow woman. They accompany Inez’s parents who are on a business trip to Paris, where Gil looks for inspiration, while Inez is busy sightseeing, shopping and partying. They unexpectedly run into Paul, a professor whom Inez had a crush on earlier, and his wife, Carol. Paul and Carol offer to take the young couple for sightseeing, where Paul shows off his questionable knowledge of Paris landmarks, much to Gil’s chagrin – but to Inez’s delight. Not long after arrival, Inez and Gil part ways. While Inez is attracted to the joviality of contemporary Paris and its nightlife, every midnight Gil surreptitiously walks into the Paris of 1920s. There, he mingles with some of the canonical figures of the early twentieth century Western literature and art. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel and T.S. Eliot come to life magnificently, in body and soul; Stein agrees to read and critique the draft of a novel Gil is working on; Gil falls in love with Adriana, a French socialite, who takes him for a sojourn in 1890, where they meet Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas. Gil’s love affair with Adriana and1920s comes to an abrupt but edifying end when she reveals she is nostalgic about the life in the 1890s. Inez’s father, protective as any, and suspicious of the Gil’s recurring absences, hires a detective to uncover the cause of his nightly disappearances. The detective, tailing Gil, takes a wrong turn and finds himself in an 18th century palace – Versailles? - where he is chased out by the royal guards! Hemingway who has read part of Gil’s novel chides the novel’s protagonist (real life Gil) for ignoring his fiancée’s affair with another man (Paul). Gil confronts Inez, who eventually admits her infidelity. However, she suggests that back in Malibu they will put her affair in perspective. Gil informs her that he intends to live in Paris. Their differences prove irreconcilable. She would not stay. Their marriage is dissolved prenuptially. The story that started with a bang (along with midnight chimes, Cole Porter and Josephine Baker), ends with a whimper.
In ‘Midnight in Paris’, Allen appears to be comparing the inevitable reality of the present (Inez: Malibu: materialism) with the nostalgic allure of the past (Gil: Paris: romance). The ending suggests that the jury remains divided. What is however fully corroborated and final in the movie is the young couple’s breakup. At the end of Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’, on the contrary, the divorce process appears to be unstoppably approaching its final stage, even though his protagonists’ motive, rational and pretext are repudiated – both their old man and immigration visas are expired. Are they not?
* * *
Of midgets and genii (for those who appreciate Woody Allen’s wit and humor, and can stomach our own. If you do not belong to this group, stop here.)
Allen’s infatuation with political punditry and preference for dictatorship, along with repeated on-foot time travels and bold references to a nostalgia shop in this movie, point to the archeogorical (archeological-allegorical) significance of ‘Midnight in Paris.’ An official close to the production team who insisted on remaining anonymous suggested to this reviewer that intellectually gifted (i.e. Iranian) viewers look for similes, metaphors, symbols, idioms, hyperboles, clichés, and other nuances of figurative language, in ‘Midnight in Paris’, to decipher its message. Allen’s invitation of Farhadi to a meeting in New York has created a buzz of anticipation in the psycho-political media that the American sage would ask the famed Iranian director to collaborate with him on a project nicknamed, Discovery of Babylon. Rumor has it that in an edited-out scene Hemingway urges Gil to move to Spain to work on a retrospective on the New World Order. Yet, in another deleted scene, Inez tells Gil that she will return to Malibu to defend American values against the Franco-Israeli conspiracy (Operation Sarkozy – How else can one explain Carla Bruni’s role in the movie, as a museum guide and the translator of a worn-out diary, in anachronizing Gil?). In the last scene of the movie, Gil is shown walking in a rainy night with a French saleswoman he barely knows, along a Paris street – reminiscent of a scene in Allen’s earlier spy thriller, What’s Up, Tiger Lily. It is unlikely that Farhadi will accept Allen’s invitation. “I suspect he is after the whole of Fertile Crescent, not just the Babylon proper.” He told a confidant, “We have lots of historical motion pictures, the best and worst of them. I am only interested in futuristic movies now. For that I am willing to collaborate with anyone – American, Brazilian, Russian, Indian or Chinese.” He also pointed out that he does not regard degradable hydrocarbon-based materials such as cellulose viable for future filmmaking and intends to switch to a fissile material whose half-life exceeds a millennium.
Unlike most contemporary Western movies of fame, ‘Midnight in Paris’ lacks any scene of overt nudity or obscene moments of sexual intimacy. Even in their hotel room, the young couple appear fully dressed or in their full-length bathrobes and towels. The only one naked is Rodin’s The Thinker. For the claustrophobic viewer ‘Midnight in Paris’ is sad and stomach turning. And, that is Allen at his best.
P.S. Toulouse-Lautrec was 5’1”; Allen is 5’5”.
P.P.S. According to Allen’s Gertrude Stein, “The artist's job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote to the vast emptiness of existence.”
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