In his new film Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen has finally conquered Death. That, or he's returned to an optimistic point of view that predates the Woody Allen neuroticism we've all come to know and love-hate.
Midnight in Paris is a bittersweet, impassioned romp through the Paris of the present, of the 20s and even of the 1890s. But really it is a journey through the psyche of a man who, while doing his best to avoid acknowledging death, finds that he's avoiding precisely what he desires most: a full experience of life.
The basic structure of the story is classic Woody Allen: Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, the director's unlikely stand-in, who goes on a pre-wedding trip to Paris with his girlfriend Inez (Rachel McAdams). Predictably, supporting characters are caricatures, acting their parts like chess pieces in a familiar Woody Allen world. Inez' parents are Republican and superficial, Gil and Inez' friends "pedantic" and pretentious. Unsurprisingly, the protagonist is self-righteous, thinks these people are idiots, and finds himself on a seemingly doomed quest for true happiness. Gil wishes he had stayed in Paris to write novels rather than selling out as a Hollywood screenwriter. He unsuccessfully tries to convince his girlfriend to live a Bohemian life with him in Paris rather than returning to the hills of Malibu. Which is when he enters into what can only be described as a wormhole to the past, and things take a whole new twist.
Through this magic wormhole, Gil is transported each night to Paris in the 20s, the nostalgic time of his dreams. It is exactly as he had imagined it: a time of free-thinking writers and artists who produce brilliant work, party hard, and who don't mind taking an evening stroll through the rain. In pleasurable shock and awe, Gil finds himself hanging out with his greatest heroes -- Hemingway, Dali, Picasso, Buñuel, Fitzgerald and the stunning, sensitive Adriana (Marion Cotillard), whom they all covet. He even convinces Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) to read and edit his fledgling novel-in-progress. Ms. Stein's words of wisdom: it is the artist's job not to fear death, but to create an antidote to it. Which goes well with the straight-talking Hemingway's advice: you can only momentarily forget death by loving a truly great woman. In other words, be passionate and bold in art and in love.
After Gil and his new 1920s lover Adriana have stepped through a second-level wormhole to the 1890s, Gil finally recognizes the fallacy of romanticizing the past. He sees that his longing for a better time is really only distracting him from what he can create today. Once he's processed this thought, Gil looks at his present life in 2010 and sees that his choices are clear. He must create the work that he aspires to create -- even if man-made art can never compete with the extraordinary beauty of even the most mundane street corner. He must love who he needs to love, not in a fantasy world, but in the finite time he has in the here and now.
Whether this time travel is "real" or is just meant to embody a psychological yearning to be somewhere better than the present, the film offers a wholly new solution to the Woody Allen "fear of death" obsession. The paradigm that you would have lived a more enjoyable life during an earlier time period, and that the future -- because it inevitably holds your own demise -- is inherently something to fear, is not scrapped so much as shifted. Allen's new take seems to be that artistic creation won't save you from death, but that it can at least set you free from your fears of it.
Now if Woody Allen can come to this Zen realization, there's certainly hope for the rest of us.