This weekend I finally made time to see Woody Allen's latest movie, Midnight in Paris. It is such a loving and gorgeous tribute to the beauty and romance of the City of Light that I found my eyes filling with tears during the opening sequence, a leisurely tour of various Parisian streets and monuments set to Si tu vois ma mère (written and played by Sidney Bechet, although I can't find the name of the orchestra he was playing with*). I thought to myself that if the movie went on like that for another hour and half, sans action, I'd still sit there and watch it.
But of course I loved the story too. (Spoiler ahead!) It's long on magic and charm, with a bit of mystery that is simply part of the magic and needs no explaining, a Parisian time travel fairy tale for grownups. A group of Americans (Gil, a successful screenwriter who wants to write serious fiction, Inez, his bossy, crass fiancée—no, I didn't like her, but she wasn't meant to be likable—and her conservative parents) are visiting the city on business. Gil falls in love, not just with the 21st century Paris he's staying in but with the 1920s Paris he somehow visits every night. The differences between the life he wants to live and the one Inez pictures for them are obvious early on, but it takes him a while to sort out which world he belongs in: Jazz Age Paris, the expensive Malibu home and lifestyle that Inez wants, or 21st century Paris by himself. I was enchanted by the scenes set in the 1920s (and in la Belle Époque, which he also visits briefly), and of course I was delighted to see present-day Paris, too, especially so soon after my own visit. Although the characters are sometimes painted with broad brush strokes, the movie is witty and observant and thoroughly enjoyable. And in the end, Gil makes exactly the choice I would have made in his situation.
The timing on this movie happened to be perfect; it's a love letter to a city that I have just fallen in love with. It's also about themes that have always resonated for me: time, memory, the pull of the past, the appreciation of the present. For all the nostalgia in which the movie is steeped, it ends with a message of hope for the future. Speaking of nostalgia, it was interesting to see which things made me most nostalgic for the city. It wasn't just the obvious things, like the river and the buildings I recognized and the sidewalk cafés, but little things like the street names on the sides of buildings, the green crosses marking pharmacies, the Vélib' stands with rows of bicycles available for rent. This sparkling tour of Paris past and present left me thinking of how I can spend more time there in the future.
*Update, 7/10/11: As far as I can tell, Woody Allen used this recording of Sidney Bechet playing with Claude Luter and his orchestra.