Being an artist involves a certain amount of self loathing – you’re always convinced that you don’t measure up. You don’t measure up to your fellow artists, and you certainly don’t measure up to your idols. It all gets infinitely worse if the person you love doesn’t really think you measure up too.
The best remedy for such self doubt? True romantic inspiration.
As the film opens, we meet Gil and Inez (Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams). They are engaged and on vacation in Paris with her parents. Inez is just happy to be away from home, and is quite content to soak up the City of Lights for a stylish perspective with heavy emphasis on food and shopping. Gil on the other hand feels a romantic kinship with the city. As the film opens at Monet’s Garden in Giverny, we listen as Gil – a writer -waxes poetic about what Paris means in the grand scheme of artistic history. He seems in love not just with the city, but the inspiration it has given to so many.
That night at dinner, they bump into acquaintances from back home named Paul and Carol (Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda). Carol is pleasant enough, but Paul is a classic know-it-all ass. During outings to The Louvre or Versailles he goes on and on about the meaning of this, and the cultural significance of that. He seems to have read just enough on every topic to make himself seem like a man of letters. But what he’s missing, as Gil can clearly see, is true passion for any of it. Pity Inez doesn’t feel the same.
Exhausted from keeping company with a couple he doesn’t much care for, Gil begs out of a night of dancing and decides to take a late night walk through the city back to the hotel. It’s then that his infatuation with Paris turns into true love, as the clock strikes midnight and the city opens itself up to him to bring true inspiration.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is primarily about the spark of creativity. For the romantics out there, illumination can come from so much and so little. An ordinary person could be riding on a train and just see it as a means to an end – but were a poet or a songwriter riding on that very same train, they might see genuine art in the moment, and find a way to express it. The trouble is, to those who don’t look at the world that way, it could seem like the artist is trying to pull expression from where there is none. For them, being witness to that isn’t always moving; sometimes it’s just dull.
This is the role Inez is there to play. She is dazzled by what Paul seems to know and loves to tell, but has either grown weary or doesn’t understand Gil’s want for truth. On a base level she “doesn’t get it”, but it’s worse than that – she’s passive-aggresively discouraging the lyricism she doesn’t see.
As MIDNIGHT IN PARIS began, I couldn’t help but grin. The film starts with a montage of Paris set to Sidney Bichet music. Instantly, I was reminded of that iconic opening montage from MANHATTAN set to george Gershwin – but something felt slightly amiss. The MANHATTAN sequence came with the stripes that it was made by a local…New York as seen by a New Yorker. The opening of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS on the other hand, drapes us with the same images from the parisian tourist trail that everybody snaps on their first trip. It was almost a bad omen – like Woody was too far out of his element.
Then it dawned on me – he was romanticizing the city. He was giving us those same icons that we all see in our head when we hear the word “Paris” because it’s the same sort of ideal that Gil believes in when he thinks of Paris. He isn’t really charmed with it as a local – a person who endures the day-to-day with all its imperfections. He’s lured to the ideal – the postcards, the romance. He’s enchanted by the idea of Paris more than Paris himself.
It’s a neat trick since it echoes Gil’s own writings which centre on a character who works in a memorabilia shop. The film wants us to hold on to ideals – be it places or eras of time, but not hold so tightly that we begin to lose sight of the truth. The truth is that drawing inspiration from a romanticized time and place can give one a nudge towards something great, but we can’t dwell too long on daydreams. Inevitably, we need to take these reflections and move forward.
If you’ve seen the film already, you’ve obviously noticed that I’ve been rather vague about one of the film’s major plot threads. The reason for this is because going into it I myself was unaware of the angle the movie was going to play, and found myself delighted by the surprise. At first, I found myself perplexed that such a delightful tale would be kept quiet, but in thinking about how much unexpected charm I got from those chapters of the story, I realized that perhaps the decision wasn’t mis-marketing, but a deliberate attempt to reward the faithful moviegoer with something wonderful.
Who am I to spoil such a genuine moment of inspiration?