I absolutely loved this comic fantasy from Woody Allen, in which Owen Wilson finds himself whisked into the world Hemingway wrote about in “A Moveable Feast” (one of my favorite books). The movie had me right from its opening moments, a montage of Paris set to café jazz: right away it evokes the magic of the place. Throughout the film I had the uncanny sense that my own memories of wandering Paris were being projected on the screen, and never moreso than in that opening montage: here is a little “rue” on the Left Bank whose cobblestones I might have trod myself. There is the Grand Palais, the Champs Elysees, the Louvre, Montmarte. The “ponts” over the Seine, the Ile de la Cite, Notre Dame. And the parks: the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Tuileries, and wasn’t that a glimpse of that great little park tucked behind the Palais-Royal? Didn’t I enjoy a delicious salad nicoise at a little table outside that very café?
In a city made for magical experiences, this movie is about a man having just those: Wilson, very good in the surrogate Woody role, plays a dreamy screenwriter who’s made good money doing what he considers hackwork for Hollywood. Now he’s working up a draft manuscript of a novel. For him, the ultimate time to be alive would have been Paris in the twenties. He and his fiancé, Rachel McAdams, are visiting Paris to coincide with her dad’s business trip; Rachel and her parents do not “get” the City of Light, and the movie has fun with her dad’s admiration for that antithesis of twenties-Paris bohemianism: Tea Party Republicanism. As for McAdams, she’s taken with a know-it-all friend (Michael Sheen) whom they happen to run into. He and his wife start accompanying them everywhere; his pedantry significantly cramps Wilson’s enjoyment of the Rodin gardens and Versailles. One evening he’s out wandering, lost. As the clock chimes midnight a 1920’s car pulls up and bids him enter. His first clue that something’s a little off comes when he meets Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald at a party.
During his nightly time travels he meets the great writers, painters and filmmakers of the Lost Generation. I love the surrealist tete-a-tete at the brasserie with Dali, Man Ray and Bunuel. Corey Still is a lot of fun as a Hemingway never without a glint of manly fortitude in his eye, the very model of gusto and vigor, never happier than when recounting with hushed intensity a WWI battle story. Hemingway ushers him into the salon of Gertrude Stein (she agrees to read his manuscript), where he meets Picasso and the painter’s current muse, Marion Cotillard, with whom he finds himself falling in love. (Turns out she doesn’t think the twenties are all that hot: for her, the great time to be alive would have been the “Belle Epoque.”)
For those of us who love Paris, part of what we’re doing when we visit, consciously or not, is hoping to conjure up or somehow visit or touch the magic of another time, a romantic time that exists in our imagination as much as anywhere. I mean, I remember how thrilled I was to be at Shakespeare and Co. books. As Wilson’s character emerged from that legendary bookstore, I thought of my own time there, reclining on a futon amidst the upstairs stacks, perusing various volumes that I’d idly reach up and pluck from the shelves. I knew in the back of my mind that I was romanticizing the place a bit, that it wasn’t really the same anymore as it was in the twenties. However, I refuse to believe that I was all wrong to feel there was still magic there. Everyone in every age thinks that the golden age was another time, but really, the golden age, like Paris itself, is in us.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)
- June 16, 2011