“Nostalgia is denial of a painful present,” says Michael Sheen’s “pedantic” academic Paul in Woody Allen’s luminescent new film, Midnight in Paris. The smug quote is directed at Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful screenwriter who’s struggling with his first novel while visiting Paris with his fiancée, a beautiful but bossy downer named Inez (Rachel McAdams). Even though Paul, all endless lecturing and deceptive cynicism, is the film’s dismissive heavy, he actually has a point regarding Gil’s disintegrating personal life. Immersed in the romantic history and setting of Paris, Gil is obviously “in love with a fantasy” all the while ignoring his soon to be wife and her judgmental parents, creating a deep tension culminating in the wondrous creation of a Parisian dream state filled with past personages and iconic locales.
The narrative trajectory of Midnight in Paris may be one-note, but it’s a lovely and charming one that directly contrasts with Allen’s recent studies of human frigidity. Every night at the stroke of midnight, Gil gets transported back to a smoky, idealized version of Paris circa the 1920s, finding momentary distraction in the charming dalliances of his favorite artists, including F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Huddleston), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stroll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody). They all seem to exist in a spinning ornate merry-go-round full of intricate art design and sparkling interiors. Gil connects most with Adriana (the jaw-dropping Marion Cotillard), a kindred spirit of sorts in that she also yearns for a Golden Age that doesn’t really exist. Through Gil and Adriana’s conversations, Allen hypnotically personifies the universal tension between nostalgia and present-day angst. Gil must experience the delusions of the past in order to fully recognize the disappointments of his present, and his process of realization feels entirely human.