When last we heard from Keri it was during a three-way Bloomsday chat with Keri, Sylvia Whitman, and yours truly. Now Keri's back to give us some thoughts on Woody Allen’s new film, "Midnight in Paris." Take it away, Keri!
Woody Allen’s "Midnight in Paris" asks a simple question: was Paris in the Twenties really so much more glittering than the present? The answer, inevitably, is no: Allen knows that nostalgia has a vanishing horizon, with every generation yearning for the golden age before it. But then again, within the lustrous charm of his Jazz Age scenes in "Midnight in Paris," the answer seems to be yes: once upon a time, there was a charmed decade in which Americans lost their inhibitions and found their prose styles.
The film’s protagonist Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson) is a jaded American screenwriter who gets a magical opportunity to test the charms of expatriate Paris first-hand. While on a Paris vacation, he finds himself mysteriously transported. When the clock strikes midnight, he is picked up by a jazz age automobile filled with a tuxedoed, champagne-swilling menagerie. "Midnight in Paris" is a variation on the Cinderella fable, but in this case the enchantment begins at the stroke of midnight. And the modernist car, rather than turning back into a pumpkin, takes him on a journey to a land of artistic mentorship and sexual fantasy.
In the film’s first Jazz Age sequence, Gil finds himself raising a glass with the Fitzgeralds while being entertained by Cole Porter on the piano. He sits across a café table taking advice about “Courage” from a vainglorious and punchdrunk Ernest Hemingway (wonderfully played by Corey Stoll). The rest of the American crowd of the Twenties is there too. Alison Pill feels just right as Zelda Fitzgerald, a party girl always on the brink of tragedy. The film’s spoof of F. Scott, on the other hand, doesn’t quite come off. He calls Gil “old sport,” but other than that, he doesn’t have much to say for himself. Kathy Bates plays Gertrude Stein with firmness but kindness. If she turns Stein into a bit more of a den mother than would really have been her style, at least Bates avoids the worst possible caricature of Stein as wannabe, fawner, and bitter, manipulative bitch.
But Gil’s most transformative encounter with the past comes in the form of a woman named Adriana (played by Marion Cotillard). Her role in the film is to be an allegory, both of Paris and of the past. Allen has romantically blended women and cities before (in "Vicky Christina Barcelona," for instance). In Midnight in Paris, Adriana has no direct historical referent, but she is a variation on the women of modernist Paris who became synonymous with the city—from Breton’s Nadja to Man Ray’s Kiki de Montparnasse, from Gala Dali to Lee Miller to Nora Joyce. Such women, whose real-life roles varied from wife to housekeeper to model to protégée, provided the sexual inspiration that drove the modernist avant-garde. Midnight in Paris’s Adriana is an artist’s model and mistress who, having changed hands from Modigliani to Braque to Picasso, now finds herself falling for the charms of this slightly hapless American from the future.
Midnight in Paris proposes several different possible relations between male artists and their muses. First there is Gil Pender’s fiancé, a thankless part for Rachel McAdams: her job is to hate Paris, have an affair with a blowhard, and keep Gil from his writing. Gil also finds female guidance in a tour guide at the Rodin Museum (played by Carla Bruni). She knows all about Rodin’s relationship with Camille Claudel, and she translates for him when only a knowledge of French can give him the key to the past. The Twenties men have a spectrum of relationships to women too. Picasso is a ruthless womanizer. Hemingway sees women only as versions of himself, proclaiming that they can be “equal in courage” to men (though he only appears in the erotic companionship of the dashing matador Juan Belonte). F. Scott seems willing to follow Zelda to the ends of the earth, but then is nowhere to be found when she is trying to throw herself into the Seine. Three Surrealists— Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Luis Buñuel—turn up to reassure Gil that his love for Adriana, a woman from a different century, makes perfect sense. The Surrealists offer a revamped version of courtly love that elevates women to positions of transcendence, theoretically places no limitations on the erotic imagination, and doesn’t bat an eye at Gil’s unconventional romance.
The Adriana character is Allen’s variation on (and near anagram of) Gradiva, the classical girl carved into a Roman wall. In the 1903 novel Gradiva by Wilhelm Jensen (best-known from Freud’s commentary), a young man falls in love with the figure in the bas-relief, but becomes persuaded that ancient though she is, she herself is out-of-place in the Roman city in which she was carved: she belongs in Pompeii. In dreams, he follows her to the volcanic city, but when he calls out to her in Latin, she insists that he address her in German. For the Surrealists, Gradiva, “the woman who walks through walls” of time and space, became a figure for the simultaneous existence of the marvelous and mundane (it was the name Dali gave to his wife Gala in several paintings). In Allen’s film, Gradiva becomes Adriana, a Kiki de Montparnasse who longs to be a Jane Avril. The Golden Age for Adriana is the Belle Epoque, time of can-can dancers, courtesans, absinthe, and bohemian tuberculosis. She longs to return to that stretch between the late-nineteenth century and World War I when—so she imagines—the champagne was flowing, the avant-garde was thriving in painting, suffering was romantic, and artists lived for their muses. With Gil, she steps back in time to the Moulin Rouge. She approaches Toulouse-Lautrec, who is sketching at a nearby table, and is offered a job as a costumier. Gil tries to persuade Adriana of the folly of her historical sense—this is a time without antibiotics!—but she decides to stay and live out her fantasies: “it’s Paris, and the Belle Epoque is just beginning…” she tells him with stars in her eyes.
Cotillard is magnetic. We meet her in Gertrude Stein’s drawing room, and from there, she draws Gil into her web by moving her into a nearby room in solitude. She is filmed in a long close-up, wearing vampish flapper black, looking lovely in a Twenties headdress, sequins and lace. When she has captured Gil’s attention, she confesses her sad story: drawn to the capital to study design with Coco Chanel, she has instead ended up on the path of the courtesan. For reasons that are not entirely clear, she falls instantly in love with the bumbling Gil Pender. Cotillard’s costumes throughout the film highlight her changing personae. She moves from the role of the decadent vamp (the black dress of the first scene) to a sailor get-up more reminiscent of Colette or of the Surrealists’ “femme-enfant.” Finally, as she enters the Belle Epoque, she appears in a shimmering silver and gold flapper’s sheath, which gives off shades of Busby Berkeley, shades of gold-digging. Its glow suggests Adriana’s transition from her own silver age to the one she imagines is golden.
What makes Adriana a Belle Epoque model rather than a modernist one is that she is never itemized in this way of the Surrealist muses, never shown just with her eyes brinking with tears, never shown just as a torso, like Lee Miller’s breats illuminated by Man Ray’s process of solarization. Rather, Adriana is a muse in the style of an earlier age, and Allen’s film suggests that she is a siren singer luring Gil back to a time in which his art will fall prey to saccharine nostalgia and irrelevance. He is taking a stab at writing the Great American Novel. The film takes an anti-Hollywood stance, with Malibu (where Gil and his fiancé will live) presented as the anti-Paris: the land of material comfort and spiritual deadness, in contrast to Paris’s bohemian attics and suffering for art. The main character of Gil’s novel works in a nostalgia shop, and the film is a cautionary tale about the perils of fully indulging the temptations of the past. But still, and this is one of its chief pleasures, Midnight in Paris is shamelessly indulgent of audiences’ endless appetite for the Paris of the 1920s. If there is an artistic lesson here for Gil, it is one Allen himself has rarely needed to learn. At his best, he has often achieved a seemingly effortless reconciliation of nostalgia and relevance, of vintage charm and satisfying satires of the present. "Midnight in Paris" is like a trip to Madame Tussaud’s or a carnival ride: it is a tour through a wax fantasy version of the past, a film that is itself a nostalgia shop. And as usual, Allen engages his fantasy past— its music and pop culture, its creative and sexual ideals—with a textured, humorous and self-aware romanticism.
This is why the film’s ending seems unnecessarily self-denying. Gil Pender pulls himself away from his dream world and returns to the imperfect present to begin a new life in Paris. Like the modernist artists of the twenties, he has learned that he must find his art in the jumbled, chaotic materials of the present. His new muse will be a woman he has met on his rambles through the city. Her job echoes that of his novel’s nostalgia-purveying protagonist. She sells old Cole Porter albums out of crates along the street. She is lovely, but with the awkward loveliness of real life, not the transcendent loveliness of his dream woman. But what we really yearn for at the end of this film is for Gil to encounter his Gradiva on the streets of modern Paris, for Marion Cotillard as Adriana to emerge from the Belle Epoque in modern clothes, having sought him across the centuries. Allen refuses this opportunity for romantic satisfaction. His modern artist will be deprived of the consolations of the wise, sad, and transcendently beautiful muse-mistress. Woody Allen’s characters rarely get the girl, at least not the one who matters most. But in the infinite substitutions of the muse, there’s always another one just around the corner…
Keri Walsh is the editor of The Letters of Sylvia Beach. She is an assistant professor of English at Fordham University in New York.