Midnight in Paris: the Golden Age Fallacy

Midnight in Paris has been my favourite film for as long as I can remember. And it made sense to me to write my first article about something which shaped the way I thought about my own life. Released in 2011, Midnight in Paris is a whimsical romantic fantasy movie starring Owen Wilson as the daydreaming scriptwriter – Gil Pender and Rachel McAdams as his high society fiancée – Inez. The movie feels more relevant than ever to me in our current age of social media where everyone wants to be someone else.

Almost every one of us at some point has wondered about how different our life would be or how happier our life would be if we could change how we looked or change our home city or the era we lived in. We often think that maybe if our lives could be tailored to fit our expectations, we would finally be happy.

Gil Pender is a mild-mannered yet highly successful scriptwriter from Malibu California. He considers himself to be a “Hollywood Hack” and dreams to publish his novel about a man who works in a Nostalgia shop. Gil feels like a misfit in his society of fancy museum tours and private wine tastings. Unsurprisingly, Gil views Paris as some sort of mystical land (cliché), the key to unlocking the novelist trapped inside him (cliché again).

Further, into the movie, we get to see more of Gil and Inez’s relationship and the viewer soon realizes that there couldn’t possibly be a chance of their relationship working. Inez is a demanding woman fit for high society. She loves fancy things and always gets what she wants. She dreams of settling in a Malibu Mansion while Gil would happily move into a studio apartment just to live in Paris. They come from two extreme corners of the world. On the other hand, we are introduced to one of Inez’s friends – Paul who is a professor, and a college friend of Inez’s, who is in Paris to guest lecture at the Sorbonne. Paul, according to Gil, is a pseudo-intellectual with an artificial knowledge of artists and their work. This is proven twice when he makes some incorrect remarks about art and wine.

Paul correctly diagnoses Gil and identifies Gil’s belief as the Golden Age Fallacy, “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 in the present.”

The plotline of the movie is introduced when one night Gil sits in a strange-looking Peugeot and ends up in the 1920s. Here he meets the Fitzgeralds, Hemmingway, Dali, and Gertrude Stein. At her house, he meets a young woman named Adriana, to whom he quickly takes a liking. Adriana, just like Gil ,thinks of Paris as some escapist fantasy. The two of them soon hit it off as he realizes that they are much alike.

Every night when Gil travels back in time he meets more of these artists that he has admired for the longest time. Through him, we get to meet Man Ray, Buñuel, Picasso; and Gil submits his manuscript to Gertrude Stein for proofreading. Gil feels like he truly belongs there in that era. He finds himself amongst the greatest minds of art to ever live. But at the same time, we get to see how he slowly loses touch with his reality. He refuses to acknowledge the fact that his relationship with Inez is a train hurtling towards a break in the tracks and he becomes more and more reclusive.

As he spends more time with Adriana, we see him falling in love with her. Adrianna states that she believes that Paris was at its greatest during the La Belle Époque era and she wishes she could travel back in time. One night after a party, the couple sees a horse carriage with peculiar-looking people in it. They sit in it and travel back in time to Maxims in the 1880s. (almost exactly like Gil’s travel back in time to the 1920s) There they meet Degas, Gaugin, Toulouse- Lautrec, and all the great artists from that era.  While talking about Toulouse – Lautrec’s art Adrianna mentions that she does not think that Picasso or Matisse could ever draw this well. This shows how she believes that the 20s were a dull period and how she thinks that the 1880s were better. But, in a beautiful turn, we hear Gaugin talk about how Degas and he felt that their generation (the 1880s) was empty and lacked imagination and how they wish that they could go back to the truly glorious period of Paris – the Renaissance. Here, Adrianna gets offered a work opportunity and she tries to convince Gil to stay back in the La Belle Époque. She says that this period was “ the greatest, most beautiful era Paris had ever known” and this is where a realization dawns upon Gil. When Adrianna says that “ It’s the present . It’s dull”. Gil realizes that all this while he was stuck in an endless loop of escapism due to his inability to cope with reality. He finally realizes that the present is unsatisfying because life itself is a little unsatisfying but that’s how it is. Even if Adrianna did stay back in the 1880s, she would soon get bored of it and would start imagining another era to be her golden time. He leaves her because he realizes that no matter how much he loved the 20s he would never trade his present for anything else.

The movie ends with Gil finally coming to terms with his real life. He breaks off his engagement with Inez and moves to Paris to work on his novel. Midnight in Paris plays on the concept of nostalgia. Woody Allen uses two forms of nostalgia. One is Gil’s longing for the past and the second is his longing for his life in the future. The first nostalgia is what takes him to the 20s Paris but the second form of nostalgia is what allows him to come back to his reality (During a conversation with Adrianna in Belle Époque Paris, Gil recounts a dream that prompted him to realize there were no antibiotics in the past.) He realizes that the only way to make his present fulfilling is by doing what you love and being what you love.

As I said earlier in my article, this movie is more relevant now than ever because we keep on being exposed to these perfect lives on social media that we constantly believe that we are better off changing something about ourselves or our lives. We either want to be slimmer or richer. We wish we were born in a different country or a different family. We have forgotten what it feels like to be truly content with what we have. Our life can never be perfect but that is what makes it magical. It’s the essence of our existence.

Every time I feel as if my life isn’t enough, I go back and watch this movie because it feels like a hug from someone who knows exactly what you are going through and at the same time helps you feel better. The movie captures something that millions of us go through every day and turns it into a visual feast with a screenplay that definitely makes it one of the best movies of the decade.