Woody Allen and the perils of nostalgia

Midnight in Paris, about a novelist transported to the 1920s, shows Allen’s romantic imagination at its best.

Nathalie Rothschild

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In the seventeenth century, Swiss doctors identified a new disease: nostalgia, a pathological homesickness that turned those afflicted with it indifferent to their surroundings and aching for the past. Nostalgics were treated with opium, leeches and warm emulsions, but for the demoralised Swiss mercenaries serving in foreign armies the best hope for cure was a swift discharge and a walk in the Alps.

Nostalgia has lost none of its paralysing powers, but the idea that it should be purged now seems bizarre, even immoral. Our fast-paced modern lifestyle is regarded as rife with danger, stress and vacuity. It’s nothing, in other words, like the good old days, which always seem so great precisely because you can project on to them whatever fantasies you have of how wonderful life would be, if only… But there’s no use, of course, in being nostalgic for the days when yearning for the past was seen as a fatal weakness rather than a virtue.

In any case, it’s perfectly common to wish that you had a shot of experiencing life in a different era. In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s Oscar-nominated film, an aspiring novelist is granted this wish as he is transported to Paris in the Twenties, a time when American writers settled in droves on the bohemian Left Bank and attended the soirees of Gertrude Stein, who dubbed them ‘the Lost Generation’.

Gil’s (Owen Wilson) nocturnal time travels take him away from his well-to-do fiancée and in-laws who, after just a few days in Paris, are homesick for California. When Gil suggests long walks in the rain, his wife-to-be Inez (Rachel McAdams) insists on lunch in upmarket restaurants. When Gil fantasises about living in a Parisian attic with a skylight, Inez reminds him they have settled on a Malibu beach house.

Apart from an iconic city, a self-deprecating writer, a mismatched couple and cerebral banter, Midnight in Paris has another Allen hallmark: an unbearable pseudo-intellectual. The know-it-all pedant Paul (Michael Sheen) is in town with his girlfriend Carol (Nina Arianda). He’s been invited to lecture at the Sorbonne but, an apparent connoisseur of everything from Monet to the Ancien Régime, Paul has seemingly endless time to guide an impressed Inez and a dejected Gil around the city. At the Musée Rodin, he even insists that the guide (played by a pouty Carla Bruni) doesn’t know her art history. And at the Palace of Versailles, he deconstructs the premise of Gil’s novel, which centres on the owner of a nostalgia shop.

‘Nostalgia’, says the smug Paul, ‘is denial; denial of the painful present… And the name for this fallacy is called golden-age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.’

Understandably, Gil finds it difficult to cope with Paul and one night, after making his excuses, he gets lost on his way back to the hotel. At the stroke of midnight, an antique car swerves by and he is swept off to a night of Twenties-style revelry in the company of Cole Porter, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The magic teleportation repeats itself night after night. Gil gets his book critiqued by Gertrude Stein, has a surreal conversation with Salvador Dali and gives Luis Buñuel an idea for a movie about bourgeois guests trapped at a dinner party (Buñuel doesn’t understand why they wouldn’t just get up and leave).

The artists and writers whom Gil meets are figments of his – and our – imagination. Allen makes them conform to stereotypes: Picasso is a brusque womaniser, Hemingway is a macho bottle-swinger, Gertrude Stein is a mother hen for artistic geniuses. No wonder Gil wistfully says they are exactly like he pictured them.

It’s Gil’s romance with serial artists’ mistress Adriana (Marillon Cotillard) that eventually brings him back to reality and makes him accept that he really belongs in 2010. Adriana dreams of La Belle Époque, a time when Parisians rode around in horse carts and Tolouse-Lautrec, Gaugin and Degas hung out at Maxim’s. But they, it turns out, feel their generation ‘lacks imagination’ and wish they’d lived during the Renaissance so they could have painted along the likes of Michelangelo.

Perhaps the obnoxious Paul had a point after all…

Golden-age thinking can certainly be stifling. Woody Allen, if anyone, should know, as his films always seem to be measured against his past greats. But Midnight in Paris doesn’t disappoint. The film is whimsical, intelligent, romantic and, yes, wonderfully nostalgic. After all, at a time when those insisting we should forgo modern life in favour of a simpler past seem to be dominating, Allen lets us escape to a world where those pessimistic bores weren’t quite so numerous.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here. Follow her on Twitter @n_rothschild.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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