On est ici, toujours à point nommé.
That’s it: you’re here, always, right where you should be. It’s a French idiom that reminds us to stay grounded in the present and it’s not some hard cheese like, “The grass is always greener,” because of course the grass is always greener where you’re not tromping on it like a damn timpani booming out Lux Æterna. It’s a nonsense aphorism. It’s the lesson lots of us learn too late, because what is perspective? I think it’s finally being able to see down the bridge of your nose; when your eye muscles can’t force your vision forward. It’s centering, especially after a lifetime of disillusionment. Our character, Gil Pender, learns this in an earned and completely satisfying way. It’s what makes Midnight in Paris a fantastic movie instead of just a good one.
Here are the factors that allows a character to earn a payoff:
A struggle (external or internal). A master director will let a struggle unfold gracefully or hint at it; the director will use context clues and deft archetypal characterization in tandem to show the audience that there’s a problem that needs to be solved (that it can be solved, too—and that the character can’t just exist with it). In Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen shows us Gil’s challenge to reconcile his desire to love and to be loved with a nagging need for creative freedom. He’s internally conflicted about what to do.
A means. The good director, and the excellent acting, will guide the audience to believe—not accept—that this struggle will continue (a very modern take) without some force acting upon it. A droll take could subvert a payoff entirely, which some modernist and absurdist directors have shown us—think Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot in Playtime or almost any Luis Bunuel film from mid-20th masterpieces. But it’s key to ground a means in believability. It can be believably fantastic, where the director asks the audience knowingly to suspend what they (think) they know to be true facts about beings and spacetime. Really, though, there just needs to be the right tools for the job available or gettable.
Often a large chunk of a movie will be assembling means. For Gil, it was a week of fantastical journeys into the past. …..the past within a past is the masterful stroke of this movie — Gil’s journey becomes a proxy for the audience’s; we;re watching him get fed the same lesson he’s been feeding us. Never one to teach instead of poking fun, Woody implores his audience to exist in the present as much as possible and that there’s a Big Human Lesson here.
He needed to learn confidence to act.
A motive. Why does Gil, our main character, want to change? Does he know that he wants to change? How will this story introduce concepts that feel plausible? The motive in Midnight in Paris feels normal to its audience because the other parts of the story feel normal — universal even. Feeling trapped in a failing relationship with Inez is about as universal experience as we have. A motive to get out, push forward is totally plausible.
A realistic expected outcome. Midnight in Paris works because its characters don’t make out-of-character decisions. The situations the characters find themselves in might be coincidental — the museum trip, the stroll through town, the midnight wander — but they all fit into what each of our characters might do. Inez’s wealthy pedantry covers any blind spots as to why Gil would want to wander around dreamy Paris instead of spend money on expensive meals and objects. It’s a coincidence that Gil happens upon the carriage of Roaring 20s’ icons, but it’s within the realm of the possible given what we know about Gil. (It’s also a movie). It wouldn’t have made sense for him to run into a car full of bankers, but artists, sure.
Those are the inputs, the plot decisions based on how the characters are written, that make them feel real — we, the audience feel like we might behave similarly given similar conditions, or that we might make the opposite choice given similar conditions. Either way, the manner in which Midnight in Paris is written leads us to believe that the shake-up, the understanding that it’s best to live in the present, realistically affects how Gil behaves at the end of his week-long sojourn with the very obviously wrong-for-him Inez.
What Midnight in Paris does so well is to remind the audience: nostalgia is boring, but so is complaining about it. “Don’t be a nostalgia hobbyist,“ they said, “keep your eyes on the prize.” Gil Pender is a an antihero composite of every straight-toothed goof who thinks they know anything about what alchemy brews happiness. For a man perpetually living in the past, he’s also living most in the present, and if you believe time travel, the future, too. (Is this A Christmas Carol?)
The Artist won Best Picture in 2011, not even narrowly beating Midnight in Paris. The year was filled with nominees that would make best-of-the-decade lists almost ten years later (and also Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which is a totally empty Oscar bait project), like The Tree of Life, Moneyball, and Hugo. Ultimately, we’ll remember Midnight in Paris as a well-crafted and excellent watch. It does have this fleeting quality to it: it’s also exceptional for an odd watch on Showtime after a search for a different movie you can’t quite remember.