“Nostalgia is denial—denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is ‘golden-age thinking’—the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living.”
Thus pontificates Paul (Michael Sheen) in Woody Allen’s 2011 Midnight in Paris. It’s a philosophy that the film’s protagonist, the screenwriter/wannabe-novelist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), buys into more favorably than Paul, as evidenced by the fact that the main character of the novel he’s working on owns a nostalgia shop, with all the dreaming about the past such a vocation implies. Based on Gil’s enraptured reactions to, say, the vintage Cole Porter LP he discovers at a Parisian flea market, or his general fetishization of all things 1920s, his fictional character’s mindset clearly aligns with his own.
It’s a mindset that finds its fullest expression in the film’s fantastical conceit: While he’s on vacation in modern-day Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), Gil finds himself whisked back into 1920s Paris—around midnight every evening—to hobnob with the artistic celebrities of the time.
Though the word pops up a lot in Allen’s film, is “nostalgia” the condition that actually afflicts Gil? If we’re going to get clinical, then Merriam-Webster defines “nostalgia” as “the state of being homesick” and “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” Gil certainly nails the wistfulness and excessive sentimentality—or at least, it’s excessive if you’re less than charmed by the innocent, wide-eyed wonder in his eyes and voice—but the fact remains that he’s fixating on a past he never technically lived through, one he only knows through all the art he’s consumed from that period.
Maybe, though, this persistent misidentification of Gil’s emotional malady is deliberate, suggesting a not-so-flattering psychological nuance. Notice, for instance, the way his idols—ranging from Americans like F. Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill) Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), to non-Americans like Pablo Picasso (Marcial di Fonzo Bo), Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody) and Luis Buñuel (Adrien De Van)—are characterized in Allen’s period sequences as little more than the sum total of their popular conceptions. F. Scott Fitzgerald offers the dead giveaway: Did he really address people as “old sport” the same way his most famous character, Jay Gatsby, addressed people in The Great Gatsby? Or does Gil assume that to be the case based on how thoroughly he’s absorbed Fitzgerald’s classic? The truth may be that Gil’s so attached to his glamorized vision of the 1920s, he’s convinced himself into believing he knows how life was back then. Thus, these daily midnight Peugeot rides into the decade act for him as a fantastical feedback loop, allowing him to immerse himself in his fantasies and turn them into lived experiences he can feel legitimate nostalgia toward.
Nostalgia as not just denial, but deliberate delusion: This is an angle that Allen only at best touches upon, mostly through Inez’s exasperated reactions to his babbling on about his experiences, to which she usually reacts by calling him “crazy.” Perhaps, though, that’s because Allen is as much infatuated with this idealized conception of the 1920s as Gil is. The sense coursing through Midnight in Paris is one of abiding affection for this past of the main character’s own imagination. Which may be why Allen stacks the deck so much against the present, painting Inez and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) as such insufferable upper-class caricatures that one can’t help but wonder how Gil ever fell in love with her in the first place. It’s no surprise that, by the end of the film, Gil eventually decides to cast them all off and strike out on his own, trying out the artist-in-Paris lifestyle of which he’s so enamored.
Gil’s final decision, however, comes after he has a self-proclaimed insight into the dangers of nostalgia, of being too attached to the past. This realization arrives as a result of being whisked into a decade even earlier than the 1920s: the 1890s, the “Belle Époque” that his French love interest in the ’20s, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), prizes in her mind with as much devotion as Gil pledges to his romanticized conception of the decade in which she actually lives. When he hears Adriana trashing his precious 1920s as dull and boring, and when Edgar Degas (François Rostain) and Paul Gauguin (Olivier Rabourdin) make the same negative claims for the time that Adriana so deeply treasures, Gil suddenly realizes that nostalgia—or, at least, his confused version of it—is its own self-perpetuating cycle. Every generation will dismiss its own time and find solace in idealizing an earlier time. Gil’s obsession may not technically be nostalgia, per se, but Allen’s broader perspective speaks to a nostalgia shared by a universal, shared humanity. It’s nostalgia in a more omniscient, God-like sense.
Despite this awareness, though, Allen isn’t willing to fully take his characters to task for their historical myopia. He’s as much committed to Gil’s and Adriana’s delusions as they are, as one finally understands by the ending he grants them: Adriana lives on in the 1890s, while Gil decides to stay put in Paris. Even with the insight Gil has, he’s still so in love with the warm feelings his personal nostalgia brings him that he’s willing to sacrifice the settled life his impending marriage to Inez represents in favor of living out his dream, however impractical it may be. Midnight in Paris treats this as a happy ending, complete with Gil randomly running into the young woman who was selling that Cole Porter LP earlier, a woman who shares the same affection for walking in the rain as he does.
Is the optimism deceptive? “Go ahead!” Inez angrily says to Gil after he announces to her his decision to stay in Paris. “Walk the streets! Gush over the Parisian light and the rooftops!” As unsympathetic as Inez has been throughout the film, she does have a point with her venomous sarcasm. He may not be literally riding into his period fantasies, but by lingering in the place where these fantasies took place, Gil’s taking a chance that he can recover the warm feelings those fantasies engendered without giving much thought to the practicalities that such a risk will entail. The world’s never-ending nostalgia machine cranks on, having claimed yet another victim.
And yet, if it can be said that the essence of being a human being in this world is to constantly negotiate between one’s intellectual and emotional sides, then Gil is finally, for once, giving into the latter without being held back by the former. He may be making a mistake, but at least he’s finally living his life the way he wants to live it, not the way he feels he’s expected to do so. Nostalgia may have its dark side, but it’s still a legitimate universal human emotion toward which we inevitably can’t help but lean. Just as Woody Allen does in Midnight in Paris, one can embrace that victimhood and use it to build a potentially better future.
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, The A.V. Club and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.