It’s midnight and all the ghosts of the (over-)satiated partakers of a moveable feast haunt the streets of Paris. A romantic roams the rainy corridors in search of a séance. Unhappily stuck in a rigid engagement with a consumerist zombie and a vampire as a soon-to-be father-in-law, Gil seeks to parley with spirits and channel the atmosphere of Paris in the ‘20s. He finds himself enamored with Fitzgerald (F and Z), Hemingway, Stein, Eliot, Barnes, Picasso, Dali, Buñuel, etc., which, in the film, is chalked up to his romanticization of the time period and deep nostalgia for an age in which his life would make sense, be meaningful. But perhaps this reading of the film is a bit too easy.
Of course in some ways the film is about accepting the “modern” condition and giving up romantic notions of eras past. Isn’t that indicative though of something larger than waking from a children’s fairy tale? That waking implies a shaking off of the paralysis of slumber, a compulsion to act, to exert “free will,” to make choices. And what exactly is the nature of the fairy tale of the moveable feast? Is it not only a petty bourgeois fantasy, but also a place in which every figure’s choice to pursue the path of art is facilitated by society and nearly always successful? I would posit that the throwing off of romanticization is only a secondary effect of the fundamental moment of the film, which is the chance.
Midnight in Paris revolves around this chance, the opportunity presented to a person to exercise free will in the only true sense of the term, to become something other than the self that they have crystallized (read: rigidified, or petrified) into. Gil has been captured, stratified, subjugated, and written over. His life has become so rigid, so habitual, predictable, and systematized that he is only really living in the technical (and organic) sense of the word. Gil’s world and actions are dictated to him. He must delight in 18,000 euro lawn chairs; he must sip his wine and disdain the fruity, rather than smoky, flavor playing across his palate; he must know and care deeply about the mistresses of Rodin and the underappreciated ways that Monet serves as progenitor to abstract expressionism; he must dress, dine, shop, converse, dance, repeat ad inf. And none of these actions are truly chosen. He doesn’t freely will himself to fall into these habits. They overcode him, are prescribed to him, he is subjugated by them, they are his dictators. It is possible that at some distant point in the past he has exercised free will once here or twice there, when the chance presented itself to him to escape, to take a line of flight, but that’s it.
As Sartre spent a lifetime explaining, the chance is terrifying. The affirmation of free will and the subsequent necessity to act (rather than simply react) is a near unbearable pressure and can create a profound sense of dread. It is difficult to take the chance, and this is precisely why the artists of the 1920’s are so romanticized in Gil’s imagination. Each of them successfully takes the chance, follows a line of flight and escapes from the daily routines and habits of a zombified life. Each of them chooses to make art and does so successfully (for one of the scariest possibilities is leaving behind a rigid shell of a life only to have another one grow on your back and pin you down once more, and possibly more firmly than before). Each of these artists forgoes the prescriptions and stratifications of their time, sacrifices habit and cliché, and begins to truly act rather than simply react to the things the world throws their way.
In the end, Gil makes a freely willed choice to live art. Or, in other words, to follow lines of flight, initiate becoming after becoming, pass from rigid shell to rigid shell (never becoming too attached or pinned down), bringing a force of deterritorialization to every reterritorialization that ensues. Gil chooses to become-painter, become-writer, become-romantic, become-foreign, become-modern, become-woman, become-child, become-animal, become-molecular, become-intense. In short, instead of wedding the single and rigid life presented to himself in the form of a zombie wife and kids in Malibu with a tea-sucking vampire of a father-in-law, Gil chooses plural lives, many of them, all of different shapes, sizes, sorts, speeds and varieties, all with different prescriptions, paths, feelings and affects, thoughts and opinions. Gil will remain vitally alive, on his toes, becoming a woman when he takes Djuna Barnes’ hand to dance, becoming a child when he hears Cole Porter’s voice on vinyl, becoming an artist when he takes up his pen, and becoming an intense and sensual lover when he beds Parisian men and women. In a way, Gil becomes Baudelaire’s dazzling soul.
And this theme is in no way confined to Midnight in Paris. The chance is a common element of Woody Allen’s oeuvre. A large swath of his films might be considered different repetitions of the chance presenting itself (and subsequently a person either exercising free will and following a line of flight or hitting the snooze button and returning to a “dogmatic slumber”). The chance presents itself (rather explicitly) and free will is affirmed in Anything Else, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Cassandra’s Dream, Whatever Works, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Bullets over Broadway, and Shadows and Fog; it is to large extents denied in Vicky Christina Barcelona, Match Point, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. And while the chance may not figure prominently into other Allen films, the consequences of letting oneself slip into a stratified life, of giving oneself over to habitual bondage, is a near constant figure in his works. All of this should come as no surprise since Allen draws so heavily on the post-theistic and self-proclaimed existentialist works of Ingmar Bergman, but for me, Allen has always stood alone in his probings of existentialist dread and free will. These themes give themselves over to tragedy quite well, but to work through some of the deepest and most painful thoughts of the human condition in comedy is, for me, always a grander task.