*This post contains spoilers and explicit language.
Last night, I watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris for — what conservative estimates suggest — the eleventh time. While MIP is my favorite of Allen’s euro-centric trifecta (Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona and To Rome with Love rounding out the set), upon my eleventh or so viewing, I was struck with the debilitating realization that embedded within the fun, cute film exists a story of abject horror.
If you’re not familiar with Midnight in Paris, essentially it is Owen Wilson (Gil Pender) playing himself and engaged to Rachel McAdams (Inez), who is an exceptionally dreadful villain. No, I’m serious, I truly hate her character and would put her right below Pinhead (but ahead of Amon Göth from Schindler’s List) for most despised of all time.
We find our engaged couple “freeloading” while her father — a man who unabashedly defends the Tea-Party movement (this was 2011) and declares Gil a Communist for not immediately blaming the help when a pair of earrings go missing — conducts business in upscale restaurants and rooftop wine tastings. Although specifics are not given, Gil is a successful screenwriter, but self-deprecatingly refers to himself as a “Hollywood hack” whose real dream is to write an authentic, literary novel. Inez shits on his dream and novel idea — where a man works in a “nostalgia shop” — with glee. And as if having to schlep around Paris (except when it’s raining, the one thing Gil desires more than anything else, perhaps even more than completing the novel itself) beside your mother-in-law to furniture stores with prices that would make the proletariat vomit, Inez just happens to run into an old-friend-from-college who she immediately decides to fuck on their trip — okay, this is my presumption, but Inez hides her lust as discreetly as a member from The Inbetweeners. After Gil declines to go dancing with Inez, the old-friend-from-college and his wife (who foreshadows Inez’s betrayal by stating “I’ll share Paul with you,” referring to the dance floor), he finally gets to wander the Parisian streets at night to soak in the ambiance and get inspired. And that’s when the horror movie begins.
While Scream inquired “What’s your favorite scary movie?” and Saw posited “Let’s play a game,” Mr. Allen took a more subtle approach, thrusting his protagonist into psychological danger with the clock dong of midnight. It is at this moment that Gil, so overcome with self-loathing and the strains of writer’s block, hallucinates a 1920s Peugeot coursing up the narrow street to whisk him away to his literary and artistic idols. And let me tell you, Gil does not sell himself short on imagining the most epic party guests and drinking companions the “Lost Generation” had to offer. We’re talking the big guns: Hemingway, Picasso, and the Fitzgerald’s, but also Cole Porter, Juan Belmonte, Djuna Barnes, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein (portrayed by Kathy Bates, who I will, and have, argued is the best actress in Hollywood), Man Ray, Dalí, Buñuel, and Matisse.
Our protagonist accepts his descent into madness after only a couple of short scenes and a conversation with the Fitzgeralds. It only takes sage advice from Hemingway to retrieve his manuscript and get it to Gertrude Stein, “the only person he trusts with his writing,” Gil begins to neglect all other fiancée-designated duties and makes excuses to return to his fabricated Xanadu under the guise of “creativity”. Gil’s “Roaring Twenties” Mr. Hyde is a complete smash with his peers and seems to be as comfortable opening up to the surrealists over vin rouge as he does dancing the Charleston with a modernist-feminist-novelist. It is at this time he begins to fall in love with a bordelaise named Adriana, whose little-black-book features Picasso, Modigliani, and Braque. In short, Gil is accepted for the pained artist, hopeless romantic he is at heart.
But can a man occupy two separate worlds? Man Ray sure thinks so. Gil, on the other hand, somehow, for whatever reason unbeknownst to me, still — for the life of me I’ll never understand — plans to carry out his engagement with the worst person in human existence.
Then Mr. Allen throws a twist into his psychological thriller, showing the audience that Gil’s two worlds are colliding as his delusions seep into his consciousness. Gil spots a diary in a basket while passing those outdoor book vendors who line the Seine, which just so happens to have belonged to his beloved hallucination — the vendor selling a layperson’s diary from 90 years ago is further proof that Gil’s psyche has suffered such trauma from writer’s block that his subconscious is fabricating excuses to return to Eden.
Gil has a Frenchwoman translate the entries — surely, another figment of his imagination — and hears HIS OWN NAME IN THE TEXT, either breaking the space-time continuum or never coming out of his organic trip.
Instead of taking a step back to contemplate his madness, Gil continues full steam ahead and steals a pair of Inez’s earrings (as the diary said Adriana had dreamed an American named Gil Pender would gift her earrings), returns to the twenties, and embraces Adriana, where soon after they both embark on her trip to the Belle Époque (circa 1880) in a scene that is so fucking meta (a word I’m never sure if I’m using correctly and am too embarrassed to ask now) it would make Inception proud.
It takes Adriana’s unraveling that forces Gil to recede from his stupor. And finally, upon hearing from Gertrude Stein — who earlier delivers one of the greatest seemingly off-the-cuff lines in cinema: “The job of the artist is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” — that the only issue with his manuscript is that the protagonist is unaware that his fiancée is cheating on him, Gil departs from the twenties forever.
Gil returns to his hotel room, confronts Inez — who has zero remorse for her actions — and delivers the mildest reaction to the confirmation of betrothal infidelity recorded on film.
Gil leaves the hotel, assuring Inez she will be better off without him and decides that he will remain in Paris to pursue a career as a novelist. But Mr. Allen, in his diabolical glory, leaves the audience with a spinning top totem (Inception reference #2) ending, wherein Gil happens to bump into a pre-BITWC Léa Seydoux who happens to work in an old-timey record store (not too attenuated from a “nostalgia shop”) and just so happens to enjoy WALKING IN THE FUCKING RAIN. The ease with which a person can decide to cancel an engagement and move to a foreign country without concern for finances can certainly only be the continual effects of psychological trauma.
Where you stand on Mr. Allen’s controversial ending — whether you believe everything worked out for Gil or he is a babbling basket case who is smashing into bistros trying to eat his lips — may say a lot about you, but we all know what happened when Jack Nicholson succumbed to writer’s block in that hotel out in Colorado.
So, if you come across your friendly neighborhood writer, be sure to give them a hug or a pat on the back, just make sure not to interrupt Hemingway — Hemingway doesn’t like to be interrupted, he told me himself.
Ben D’Alessio is the author of the novels, The Neon God, Binge Until Tragedy, and Lunchmeat, which are available in paperback and e-book formats. He lives in Ocean City, New Jersey, where he is also a lawyer, amateur film critic, and personal throne for his cat, Kennedy.
15% of profits from all sales will be donated to The Kitty Krusade, a non-profit dedicated to supporting cats who are the victims of abuse.
To read novel excerpts, short stories, and other writings, follow the author on these social media platforms: