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Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen and Sartre

Does Woody Allen now see New York as heaven, as hell or as earth — or all three combined?

September 5, 2011

Does Woody Allen now see New York as heaven, as hell or as earth — or all three combined?

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t like many of Jean-Paul Sartre’s works. With one exception, I found them too French, although I’m quite a Francophile myself. My feelings toward Woody Allen are similar to my sentiments on Sartre. I never liked much of his work. I found it too neurotically New York, although I quite like the city.

In the case of Sartre, that exception is his screenplay Les Jeux Sont Faits (The Chips Are Down). Written in 1943, published in 1947 and turned into a movie the same year, it tells the story of Pierre Dumaine and Eve Charlier. This man and woman had been predestined for each other, but while on earth they had never been able to live out their destiny because of their premature violent deaths.

They actually never meet until the afterlife, where they receive a chance to make good on their presumed destiny. Eve and Pierre briefly return to earth. They not only hope to fall in love, but also to change the chain of events that led to their respective deaths.

It’s not hard to imagine, Sartre being Sartre, that things don’t pan out as hoped. Still, the plot is remarkably gentle and constructive, not just considering the author. It is an eternal yarn that sticks with almost anybody who’s read the story, which has almost biblical qualities.

Now 75 years old, Woody Allen has, at long last, found the same quasi-biblical qualities in himself, thankfully before he transgresses into the afterlife and would have to bargain with his maker for another chance to make a better second impression.

His most recent movie, Midnight in Paris, is one of the great works, not just because it transports you right into Paris for an evening. There are plenty of movies and richly illustrated photo books that do that as well. Aside from the plot, it’s the cast of characters, presented in a refreshingly irreverent, creatively tension-laden transatlantic manner, that makes the whole work tick.

Of course, there is Owen Wilson, who has fortunately overcome the drug problems that had until recently kept him out of the business. He plays the main character, Gil. A successful Hollywood script writer, he is much more enamored with Paris than with his fiancée, Inez, or her oppressively George W. Bushian parents. As Wilson’s Gil is sucked magically into the womb that is Paris, she starts to hang out with a pedantic American know-it-all academic, Paul.

Paul is supposedly in town to lecture at the Sorbonne, but gets puts into his rightful place of buffoonery by a local tour guide played by — get this — Carla Bruni, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s truly better half. It’s never clear whether her charming and determined way to put the buffoon into place is a play on the ignorant self-righteousness of George W. Bush, or the alternative option, the very knowledgeable self-righteousness of Barack Obama.

Either way, where the movie receives its magic is from the introduction of a variant of time travel — back into the idealized past. And so it is that a drunk Owen Wilson is picked up one night by a cast of characters driving by in a 1920s limousine.

The magic is that it’s not just an old-fashioned car, but that Wilson dips in and out of modern reality. By day, he has to suffer through the insufferable indignations spouted out by his soon-to-be in-laws, or their daughter, his fiancée. And each night, he gets to time travel, always entering that limousine’s rear passenger cabin.

In due course, he meets the most impressive cast of characters, beginning with F. Scott Fitzgerald, then Hemingway. Along the way, he becomes a close acquaintance of Gertrude Stein’s, Picasso’s, Bunuel’s, Dali’s and T.S. Eliot’s.

Eventually, he meets his desired lady, a very down-to-earth young woman who had come to Paris to study fashion and work with Coco Chanel. Adriana, played by the very charming Marion Cotillard, and Owen Wilson’s Gil have all the makings of turning into Pierre Dumaine and Eve Charlier, Sartre’s two principal characters from Les Jeux Sont Faits. With one big difference: They seem to be on track to consummate their destiny while still on earth.

But before the movie can have any happy ending, Adriana first must end her relationship with her lover at the time, Pablo Picasso. Or rather, Picasso must end his affair with her.

No sooner is that accomplished, and all seems headed for the grand finale, do things go sour — wistfully, imaginatively and Sartre-like. While Owen Wilson’s character really has a crush on Paris in the 1920s, and considers that its magical era, Marion Cotillard’s Adriana is a time traveler herself.

And while they meet in his dreamscape of the 1920s, to which Gil has successfully traveled, Adriana is his true soul mate, but with a twist. Since she really is from the 1920s, her escape hatch, and her idealized time travel period, is Paris’s Belle Epoque, the decade of the 1890s, when so much science and art was created in the city.

Appropriately enough, the two soon-to-be lovers — in one of his day trips back to a sad reality, Gil has ended his engagement to Inez — do manage to travel to the 1890s. There, they meet the diminutive Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and his fellow artists, the painters Paul Gauguin and Claude Monet.

Alas, it is at this moment where the tragic split in this great yarn occurs, which keeps it from consummating its predestined, biblical ending. Adriana is even more enamored with traveling to the 1890s than with Gil. His desperate efforts to convince her to stay with him in the 1920s fail.

They do so for a good reason. Adriana is intent on living the same magic that Gil desires, traveling back to the previously grandest era. But for this angelic looking, but sweetly equal-rights-oriented woman, that means splitting from Gil.

And cut. It wouldn’t be a Woody Allen movie if there weren’t a somewhat laconic, somewhat charming, second-best ending for Gil. Now that Gertrude Stein and Hemingway have both vouched for the quality of the literary skills of this former mere screenwriter, he has snapped out of time travel for good.

He re-meets a young woman who shares his passion for the 1920s, as evidenced by the Cole Porter records she sold him in her antique market stall. It starts raining and Owen Wilson marches off not into the sunset, but the rain, which he actually prefers. His lover-to-be is no mesmerizing Adriana, but a somewhat Madeleine-like woman.

She may not be Eve Charlier, and he is not Pierre Dumaine. But they do meet on earth, not just in the afterlife after violent deaths. The young lady has another strength: She may not share his passion for time travel, but for walking in the rain. And off they go.

One wonders: Did Woody Allen end up staying in Paris, at least in his vivid imagination, liberating himself from what has oppressed him the most in his life, the city of New York? Does he see New York now as heaven, as hell or as earth — or all three combined?


Now 75 years old, Woody Allen has, at long last, found the same quasi-biblical qualities in himself, thankfully before he transgresses into the afterlife.

No sooner does the film seem headed for the grand finale do things go sour — wistfully, imaginatively and Sartre-like.

Does Woody Allen now see New York as heaven, as hell or as earth — or all three combined?

It wouldn't be a Woody Allen movie if there weren't a somewhat laconic, somewhat charming, second-best ending.