Explorations in Nostalgia: Midnight in Paris

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Why is there a certain nostalgic quality to rain? Rain can be beautiful to imagine: the quietly rushing sound it stirs as it starts to fall, the peaceful pattering it makes on roofs and windowpanes, the tingle of droplets on your skin, the way it clings in watery beads to your lashes, the sweet earthy scent it trails as it vanishes from the vapory air. Thinking of rain conjures images of afternoons hiding indoors with a good book, of splashing in puddles as a child, of running makeup, of the high romance of kissing outside in a storm, and the satisfaction of coming home, changing into dry clothes and getting warm.

Most people living in Glasgow would be less lyrical about the drizzle that bursts ever too frequently upon the city. Rain can be a pain. Rain can mean struggling with a broken umbrella, feeling cold droplets drip down your back; it can mean delayed tennis matches, ruined picnics and cancelled plans. Yet rain is also one vein through which we are transported smoothly to some heart of our past; often our recollection of events and people is framed by weather, and rain can add a cinematic backdrop to memory that reflects the misted quality of nostalgia. It has a certain sense of deja vu, of transient confusion. I remember being here before, and it was raining. Like this…or was it somewhere else?

Yet rain is perhaps, like memory, never as lovely as we imagine or remember it to be. It is part of our wistful fantasies.

Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris opens with a beautiful montage of Paris in the rain, accompanied by accordion music. The shots slip effortlessly between postcard highlights of the city and panoramas of people in the street with umbrellas. It sets the scene for the film’s at times poignant but mostly witty and lighthearted exploration of nostalgia.

I first went to see Midnight in Paris at the kooky little Grosvenor Cinema on Ashton Lane in Glasgow’s West End. An appropriate venue, seeing as it is modeled on an old-fashioned picture-house, with red carpeting, plush seats, vintage interior design, glamour and the availability of wine.

Midnight in Paris is a pastiche of genres, styles, characters and references. Not only does it include an array of (slightly caricatured) figures from the 1920s creative scene in Paris, but it also welds together flashes of political satire with Hollywood rom-com and magical realism.

The film’s protagonist Gil is a Hollywood script-writer discontented with his sell-out job and longing to produce something creative in his writing. Perhaps there is a certain irony here: a search for authenticity staged within a film that is playfully anything but ‘original’. A trip to Paris with his fiancé and her parents, Gil hopes, will provide the spark of enchantment. The first conversation of the film sets up the juxtaposition between the romantic Gil and his pragmatic wife, who appropriately later has an affair with the ‘pedantic’ ‘pseudo-intellectual’ Paul:

 Gil: Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain? Imagine this town in the ’20s. Paris in the ’20s, in the rain. The artists and writers!

Inez: Why does every city have to be in the rain? What’s wonderful about getting wet?

Already we get the sense that Gil wanders a little too much into his imagination, particularly his imagination of the past – of Paris in the 1920s. Gil’s first actual delve into the past occurs one evening when after the stroke of midnight a strange black cab stops to pick him up, full of revelers drinking wine and champagne. Through this mysterious portal, he is transported back in time to Paris in the 1920s. The film handles the visuals sparklingly well, with stunning 20s costumes, cocktails and the lovely decor of the bars and clubs. It’s all quite magical and dazzling, and we experience the wonder Gil must feel as he is teleported into his favourite fantasy. It certainly got me excited for Baz Luhrmann’s soon-to-be-released The Great Gatsby.

Except unlike us, the audience, Gil becomes a participant in his fantasy, not merely a spectator. Among his adventures, Gil encounters a plethora of characters from the 1920s literary and arts scene, including Hemingway, Dali, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso and Gertrude Stein. There is definitely an element of caricature here, which reflects the play of irony and pastiche characteristic of the post-modern: the film reminds us that these characters are just representations of real figures, who themselves were in a sense self-styled personas, who we knew predominantly through their art. From Dali’s raving about rhinoceroses, to Hemingway’s speeches about war and truth and sincerity, Allen plays with exaggeration to enrich the sense of fantasy and nostalgia. There is a scene where Zelda Fitzgerald is trying to commit suicide because she thinks her husband does not love her and Gil, trying to stop her jumping, tells her that he ‘knows’ that F. Scott Fitzgerald really does love her. Why? she asks. How can Gil possibly know? He’s read all the books and biographies about and by Scott, of course. I think the film here raises an interesting question about subjectivity and literature: what is the real version of events? What is the truth behind the writing? It seems that there isn’t one: instead there are all the fragmented perspectives of those involved, and those who write the books. Right now I’m reading Zelda’s novel Save Me the Waltz, which critics say is Zelda’s version of the semi-autobiographical events of Scott’s Tender is the Night, both depicting the breakdown of minds and marriages, but from the different perspectives of wife and husband. Gil’s attempts to claim that he can know better than the woman involved only underline the absurdity of any narrative which claims ultimate objectivity.

Gil’s encounters with the resurrected ghosts of the 1920s stage a playful juxtaposition of past and present. His quotative use of ‘like’ and his mundane discussions about his relationship to Inez contrast heavily with the stylish and hyper-surreal world he finds himself in. For example, his conversation with Adriana (Allen’s fictional amalgamated embodiment of Picasso’s lovers) about his engagement to Inez highlights the time and culture gap, but also the disparity between reality and fantasy. He realises that there is in fact very little he and Inez have in common, which perhaps suggests that his engagement itself was built on a fantasy. Gil admits that they have a ‘little bit of a disconnect with the big things’ but at least they agree on the little things:

Gil: I will say that we both like Indian food, not all Indian food, but the pita bread, we both like pita bread, I guess it’s called naan.

The likelihood of the super-stylish flapper Adriana knowing what pita bread is, let alone having eaten it, is pretty slim. In addition to this, Gil’s comic response to Hemingway’s question as to whether he’d ever been hunting – “only for bargains” – presents the playful irony of the film’s exploration of past and present, and the discrepancy between the dramatic, larger-than-life lives led by the characters of a by-gone age and the inane realities of the present.

Another funny encounter between past and present occurs when Gil gets into a cab driven by T.S. Eliot and exclaims:

Gil: Thomas Stearns Eliot? T.S. Eliot? T.S. Eliot? Prufrock is like my mantra.

The comedy here is that this reflects how many of us would behave – awkwardly unrestrained – if we were thrust into a world where we could meet our long-dead heroes. There is the hilarious sense that Gil is behaving as a teenage girl would if they encountered Justin Beiber. And yet he is not meeting the teeny-bopper Beiber, but one of the twentieth century’s finest poets (with all the linguistic prestige that entails). The film collapses the language of the present incongruously with the literary visage of the past.

Gil’s general obsession with the literature of the 20s is reflected in his view that Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is his ‘mantra’. This itself is an interesting mise-en-abyme of intertextuality, as Prufrock itself is a thoroughly intertextual poem, referring for example to Dante. It is also a difficult poem, an internal monologue that follows a complex and fragmented pattern of thoughts which seem to have no definite direction and nor indeed association. Yet its line, ‘Let us go then, you and I’ creates an evocation that resonates throughout Midnight in Paris. It is a speech act, an announcement: let us go. The film itself is built on such a contract of ‘let us go’, asking the audience to suspend their disbelief with regards to the unexplained time travel and enjoy the magic, follow the journey and watch as it restores reality only to thrust us back into fantasy.

Let us go’ seems to suggest an address to time itself – come with me, time, follow my fantasy – but also of linking arms or minds with someone and going someplace else. Time travel can be a solitary or a joint affair. Gil travels back in time to the fin de siecle with Picasso’s lover Adriana, because this Golden Age is Adriana’s fantasy. Here he realises that there is no Golden Age, the Golden Age myth is just a nostalgic longing to escape one’s present: ‘that’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.’ We tend to travel when we are unsatisfied with where we are right now.

The spellbinding world that Gil occupies by night is by far the best part of the film, and Allen frustrates audiences by delaying these ventures with the mundanity of the film’s present narrative. Gil has to follow his spoilt-brat fiancé around shopping for furniture, have dinner with her ultra-conservative parents and trail around with Inez’s ‘pedantic’ lecturer friend Paul. There are slightly tedious scenes about lost earrings, relationship breakdowns and dinner-table conversations which leave us irritated with the twenty-first century rom-com drama, and desperate, like Gil, for the exciting narrative in the past. These temporal fluxes from past to present serve to delay and prolong the audience’s desire to go back into the past, and so highlight the unsatisfactory nature of the present in comparison with rose-tinted history.

Despite the occasional bore of the present, there are some gems slipped in by Allen amongst the rom-com rubble. These include the parodic representation of Inez’s conservative snobbery and naivety – ‘Inez: You always take the side of the help. That’s why Daddy says you’re a communist’. Also, Gil’s mocking of the Tea Party movement, calling them ‘crypto-fascist airhead zombies’. The film is not entirely an adventure into the past but also an aping of the absurdities of the present – from politics to romantic relationships.

And so back to memory. In the film there is the repeated question of ‘is nostalgia denial?’ Denial of the present, denial of reality, denial of the irretrievability of the past. Nostalgia can relate to more fantastic recollections of a past, a past that was only accessible in the first place through mediation such as literature, film and art – the very instruments of romanticism and fantasy. This is definitely the kind of nostalgia Gil suffers or experiences, but there is another kind of nostalgia that is more personal. This kind of nostalgia was famously articulated by Marcel Proust in his book In Search of Lost Time, in a scene where the narrator experiences an involuntary trigger of memory caused by a tea-soaked cake:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature.” (Marcel Proust, “The Cookie” from In Search of Lost Time).

This kind of nostalgia is one most of us can identify with: the slightly uncanny sparking of a past personal memory from some kind of sensory trigger. That is how perfume gains its emotional quality, through the way its scent weaves swirls of associations between our past loves, lives and histories, and stirs these up again for us from one whiff in the present. Each time I put on my Body Shop Japanese Cherry Blossom, I fondly and wistfully remember (and long for) my holiday in Rome. As Proust describes it, the unintended evocation of a past memory makes us feel as if we transcend time and morality, collapses our identity ‘this essence was not in me it was me’ and produces an ‘all-powerful joy’. Food is nostalgic because it combines different senses: taste, smell, touch, sight. From your granny’s best soup to those warm chewy cookies they used to make at school, our gustatory pleasures are a minefield of nostalgic resonances.

The point here is that nostalgia is not just an affliction, a slightly unhealthy yearning to escape the present and return to a past that has been forever forlorn in the timeline of history. Nostalgia can be pleasurable, even if the pleasure is a little bittersweet – that feeling of longing and sadness for the person you once were or once loved when you hear the opening bars of an old song. Gil’s nostalgia perhaps goes too far: his novel is set in a nostalgia shop, and he spends his real life dreaming of forgotten times. His fiance accuses him of having a ‘brain tumour’ when he begins talking about the past as if it were real. This is an interesting image, as it suggests something psychologically corrupting about the past: it seeps into the present inevitably and transforms the way we experience the here and now. It is a kind of everyday madness.

Yet Midnight in Paris leaves us with a vision of nostalgia that encapsulates its positive effects. Gil’s decision to break up with his ill-suited fiance, and the final scene where he walks into the rainy Parisian night culminates in a strange blurring of his reality and fantasy. He has finally made grown-up, significant choices, but he has also walked into the sweet allure of a romance that reverberates with his early fantasies of Paris in the rain. It is an elusive, probably unrealistic ending, but this is the magic of the movie. Woody Allen gives us the happy, fulfilled ending we’ve been hoping for – it’s not quite the kissing in the rain at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s but the rain still provides an amorous atmosphere – and this ending, quite nostalgically, recalls all the dreams Gil has at the beginning of the film, and all the familiar romance films of bygone times that end similarly. So this is nostalgia: the little dab of illusion to soften the edges of reality.

Further reading:

Nostalgia: Sweet Remembrance. Available at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200605/nostalgia-sweet-remembrance

Proust, M. 1913-1927. In Search of Lost Time. 

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2 thoughts on “Explorations in Nostalgia: Midnight in Paris

  1. Great film i felt good afterwards, loved the periods of the film when he went back in time, his wife was very good at making one dislike her, it reminded me of the film American Beauty when Kevin Spacey was stuck in a loveless marriage and you just wanted him to have an affair with another woman

    1. American Beauty is another film I’ve watched recently and I thought it was really good at again picking away at the surface of the American Dream, and it also had a surreal, dreamlike quality to it, despite being immersed in a mundane suburbia. The ending was pretty powerful, and has a lot to say about the impossibility of searching for self within a world of societal pressures. However, there is something to be said about this recurring trope of the repressive housewife/angry perfectionist career woman restricting male creative freedom – what about when it happens the other way around?

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