Midnight in Paris: Portrait of the Artist as a Cuck

By Charleston Nabob

The wife wants to go to Paris this summer.

“Of course!” I say, “of course! As do I! But I just don’t see how we can afford it at this—”

“Well then you need to get a job!” she stomps.

I shuffle my papers, across and all over me is dread, “well, honey, why don’t we talk about it later this week, hm? I’m working on another cover letter. I’m sure this one will impress!”

That evening, instead whisking her away to the City of Lights, I take her to Amazon Prime. There, for five bucks, is Woody Allen’s 2011 film “Midnight in Paris,” starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams.

This is a good movie, more or less. I do like it, kind of. Owen Wilson, yes, is loathsome: a nuisance, physically and verbally; a veritable pest, something to be put out with your shoe. But I do like this movie, just enough.

We have ourselves a Hollywood scriptwriter named Gil Pender (Wilson) with his fiancé (Rachel McAdams) in Paris, 2010. They are tagging along with her parents—his soon-to-be father-in-law is wrapping up an important merger. Gil wants to See Paris, to Really Take It In. His fiancé opposes all this: Inez stresses they are there to shop, for there is a house in Malibu that needs furnishing.

Gil pesters her from the start, telling her he wants to upend their lives and stay. Here, he says, he could write his novel and leave behind and forever the world he made back in the States. She admonishes him, not gently, for his sentiments. They laugh together at his suggestion over a pond full of lilies, just as happy as before we entered their lives. You’d think he’d stop there, you’d think he would stop bothering his much-too-attractive-for-him-fiancé and go on with the vacation. Perhaps, you’d think, he could find time to go out on his own without alienating his other half. But no: he expresses constantly, at every moment, his wish to stay, to walk the streets in the rain and trace the steps of the expat voyeurs of yore and do what they did in the Paris hollowed out by the Great War. The poor girl and her parents are subjected to a deluge of inane musings brought forth from a first reading of “A Moveable Feast.”

But as is right and just, he is doomed: he is turned a cuckold of the lowest order—whilst away on vacation with his fiancé’s parents, no less! Talk about a laughingstock! Cucked in Paris in front of the future in-laws! Ha!

Who is our hero? What man comes onto and takes the lovely woman away from the sentimentalist buffoon? He is Paul, a man from Inez’s past, who just so happens to be in France with his wife to give a lecture at the Sorbonne. He is brilliant, he is well-dressed; he argues with female docents and bears himself with immense authority; he is sommelier extraordinaire, homme de renaissance, and damn it his wife says you must see him dance! He is just as plain in appearance and unremarkable as his counterpart, but what separates him is his immediate vision.

The man can grasp today, Paul. He sees the world today, the ever present now. No present moment of past things betrays him: nostalgia to the wastebin! Forward and into today he strives, leaving behind nebbish Gil Pender to dream in dingy backstreets, wondering if Hemingway would like his novel.

Paul is a man of all ages, of all time. He cites old French to define Versailles and correctly identifies the grape varietal. He moves between responsible husband and reluctant adulterer. You couldn’t possibly stamp him with the sin for Gil is just so detestable.

And Gil’s? He is guilty of hoping for another time, of wanting to look upon a different horizon. All fall into this at some point in their lives, so we will forgive him. But his sins as an artist are manifold: he writes slop for the widest possible audience in Hollywood; he aspires to a higher form but must leave behind his own home. He must do this, he insists, because only Paris offers the solace and inspiration necessary to succeed. But what is art but an expression of a people and a place? Yes, there are notable works of transience—Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Homer’s “Odyssey,” Old Testament Exodus, Xenophon’s “Anabasis”—but each are of a distinct people moving to a home, new or old or divinely mandated. Could I be assigning too much import to an auteur’s minor paean to Paris? Yeah, probably.

I suppose what earned this film the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay is when Gil is transported through time and ends up drinking and carousing with the Lost Generation. They are caricatures, skin deep impressions of the various painters, writers, and musicians. In one of his last midnight sojourns to the 20s, Gil falls for another woman beyond his range only to find out she prefers a time preceding even then, the Belle Époque, leading Gil to realize the error of his ways.

In the end, Woody Allen tells us there is no Golden Age but the present. You must seize today, carpe diem! We all look back on some age before us as some better time, but this is folly! Could this really be our lesson? How bland!

I enjoy looking back fondly upon past ages, just as every man does. Funny enough, this movie is a fragment of what now feels to be distant age: Gil suffers the ordeal of his wealthy in-laws being Tea Party Republicans in Obama’s first term; Gil bemoans the invasion of Iraq, speaking with the hopeful tune those many had that war was not in the forecast and only good times ahead. Once again, the Good Liberal American will be accepted in Paris, not being associated with the Bible Thumper and Bush! A New Golden Age awaits!

This age was mine as well. When I watch the beginning and end, with the montage of views of Paris, I see Notre-Dame intact. I see French sensibilities, French styles of dress, none of the American monoculture we see now. There are no running war zones, no slaughters in concert halls. There are no rainbow flags (though one appears ominously towards the end behind Gil sitting outside at a café) and there are no heavily armed guards. There is not one smart phone.

Truly, this may have been a Golden Age for Paris.

Charleston Nabob may be found on Twitter @HolyCityFlaneur

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Tony The Tigere says:

    I saw this picture in the theater, back when that seemed to cost ten dollars. I might have even been dragged there by some woman (as bad as it is when they drag you to things, it’s much worse when they stop). My feelings matched the reviewer’s pretty closely, except that I’m predisposed in favor of Wilson; I think he succeeds as a comic actor. Certainly in this role he’s Woody Allen’s self-insert, meaning we’ve been spared two hours of something much sillier; a decade earlier, it would have been Woody onscreen with an even further out-of-his-league fiancé.

    Woody and the reviewer are correct; nostalgia is for cuckolds, It ensnares a certain kind of person who can’t understand the present and has serious problems with the future. But I don’t think anyone can turn it entirely off; better to recognize the inclination and fight to keep it to a bare minimum, lest one bore their fellow travelers on the way to a future we ourselves must make.


  2. Alex says:

    Nice review. I’m not a big fan of Woody Allen myself because I find it a bit cheap to tell people in the work itself how sensitive I am (me, Woody). Ergo, if you don’t like the movie you can’t possibly be a sensitive soul. It’s a kind of extortion. He seems to do this all the time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s