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When Would You Like to Have Lived?

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris
When Would You Like to Have Lived?

The question has been around for centuries: of all the times in human history, when and where would you like to have lived? For Christians the answer is usually in Palestine in the time of Christ, but this movie, looking at the question through the comic lens of Woody Allen, answers it from the perspective of a young novelist who admires the Paris of the 1920’s, when Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald roamed the earth.

Midnight moves back and forth between the present day, in which Gil, the novelist played by Owen Wilson, is in Paris with his fiancée and her parents, and 1920’s Paris, where Gil goes at midnight when he is in the right spot on the streets of Paris. Magically, Gil is picked up by everyone from Hemingway to Faulkner to T.S. Eliot in a charming black and yellow limousine and whisked away to the home of Gertrude Stein or a coffee shop where Dali and his friends, Luis Buñuel and Man Ray, talk to Gil about time travel, photography, movies and… a rhinoceros. The cameos are endless—Adrian Brody plays Dali in one of the best ones—as are the one-liners (“Listen, where I come from people measure out their lives with Coke spoons” the Californian Gil tells Eliot as the car drives away).

Critics were surprised by the film’s success; Midnight had looked to them like just another Woody Allen comedy. Allen has for years been categorized as doing two kinds of films: light comedies and dark, comedic dramas. Since the joke remains the center of his creative genius, even the most intense of nasty murder stories like Crimes and Misdemeanors or Match Point have jokes galore or comedic subplots. The difference between his best comedies, however, and his lesser comedic efforts is not the quality of the jokes, but the care and intrigue of the plot. Midnight in Paris is one of the best, to some degree because of the clarity of the Shakespearean structure and the quality of the performances, but mostly because it has a strong central theme and it sticks to it.

That theme revolves around the question asked in our first sentence above, but is not really limited to it. It is instead articulated most fully in a few lines delivered by Gil to Adriana, the woman with whom he has fallen in love in 1920’s Paris, who herself believes that the golden age is the Paris of the 1890’s populated by Toulouse Latrec, Paul Gauguin and Edward Degas. When she meets those men, they burst her bubble by telling her that in their opinion the golden age was really the Renaissance, but Adriana simply chooses to disbelieve them and wants to stay in “la belle époque”. Gil then tells her that he is from the future and believed all his life that Adriana’s present—the Paris of the 1920’s—was the golden age, a viewpoint that she cannot imagine. Gil then gently tells her

Adriana, if you stay here then and this [1890’s Paris] becomes your present, pretty soon you’ll start imagining another time was really your golden time. That’s what the present is: it’s a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying… If I ever want to write something that’s worthwhile, I’ve got to get rid of my illusions, and that I’d be happier in the past is probably one of them.

Gil is right: that the past was better than the present is an illusion, but his view of that present is not a Christian one. Gil resigns himself to a present that is unsatisfying, not because it is not yet perfect, but because no age ever will be. The Christian sees the present as unsatisfying only because the effects of God’s redemptive purposes are not yet fully realized. But Christians know their world will someday be redeemed by the same regathered Might that raised our Savior from the dead, and this makes us sing the song of joy, not of sadness. We anticipate an eschaton of unimaginable beauty, goodness and truth, not simply another cycle of the wheel of life.

Midnight in Paris is a comedy so Gil, the character Woody Allen would have played, as he did in so many of his movies, except that he rightly saw himself as too old to play it any longer, meets up with a young, vibrant book seller on the streets of Paris in the rain, and the movie ends happily after ever. But the viewer knows that the truth to which Allen points at the deepest levels of the movie is one that never quite goes away, that gnaws at the soul of humankind. When one adopts a view of the world that sees its history as simply moving forward along a flat line, with no hope for the eradication of the ultimate dissatisfaction of life, then one is doomed to simple acceptance of life as it is, a succession of only small and ultimately irrelevant accomplishments.

The Christian on the other hand looks forward with hope to a world beyond our best dreams of justice and wisdom and love. Midnight in Paris, beautiful and charming as it is cannot ultimately allow for such a hope.

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