View from the Couch: Midnight in Paris

October 9, 2011 1 Comment

Dr. Levin is a psychoanalyst, on the faculty of the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute, the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council and Associate Clinical Professor at Michigan State University.  She is associate editor of the Psychoanalytic Inquiry and a thoughtful cinephile.


Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”
by Carol Levin M.D.


I chose to put Gil in Midnight in Paris“on the couch” because of my interest in the experiences and relationships that emerge in treatment and in life (and in films) that ripple into and out of processes of growth. People find meandering paths to transformation, to feeling more whole, free, and alive.


Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, Woody Allen’s stand-in in his enchanting parable Midnight in Paris, as a schlemiel, a wide-eyed, bumbling, and befuddled American in Paris who is filled with unsatisfied yearnings.  Indeed we have to work hard to envision Gil as a mega-successful Hollywood screenwriter/script doctor, his current, unfulfilling métier.   As Midnight in Paris opens, thirty-something Gil is in Paris, so luminously and lovingly depicted in the opening montage of the film that we experience our own old or new love for this magical city where, everywhere we turn, the past is alive in the present.  Gil is vacationing with his vacuous and gold-digging fiancée Inez.  They are staying in a luxury hotel with Inez’ wealthy, Tea Party Republican parents who feel distain and suspicion for their future son-in-law, even through Inez’ father has carefully vetted Gil’s financial statements.  In their eyes, he is unstable.  We too feel the poignant tension of Gil’s struggle to free himself from hack writing.  He is working on what he hopes will be a break-through novel that earns him a place alongside his heroes, the writers of the 1920’s Lost Generation, in the pantheon of great authors.   So Gil is at tipping point in his development when we meet him in Paris.  He had lived there before becoming ensnared by Hollywood.   His literary ambitions have been revived, and he longs to stay in Paris to work on his novel, a patently autobiographical book about a man who idealizes the past.  But Inez won’t hear of it.  It’s a Malibu beach house that fills her dreams as she shops with her mother.

Allen has quickly pulled us into Gil’s constrained, shallow, and conflicted present before giving us a front row seat on Gil’s journey of self discovery and self empowerment, a journey that takes Gil through the past so that in essence he can find the relationships and experiences he needs to grow and transform his present—not through his actual past with a therapist as his guide (like the journey in dynamic treatment), but through his idealized literary past.   Late one night, lost and sitting on some steps to regroup, bells chime in the distance at midnight and a classic Peugeot pulls up.  Its occupants beckon to Gil to get in.  He takes the risk.  His disbelief is palpable as it slowly dawns on him that the party where he finds himself isn’t just a costume party.  He has been transported back in time to an actual soiree in the 1920’s.   He meets Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, and then, on subsequent nights in a variety of places, Hemingway, “Tom” Elliot, Dali, Picasso, and others—his heroes.  As the nights go by, Gil’s star-struck bedazzlement metamorphoses into a desperate and determined quest for affirmation as a writer and a man.  Hemingway takes his manuscript to Gertrude Stein, who agrees to read it.  They like it, offering suggestions for revisions.  He is thrilled.

But when Gil tries to bring Inez with him in one last attempt to get her to know him by sharing his experience, she is bored and restless as they wait for the phantom car that never fails to arrive after the bells chime midnight.  She hails a taxi to return to the hotel, abandoning him to wait alone.  Already unfaithful with her pedantic friend Paul, it has been intimated, she doesn’t have the capacity to empathize with his dreams and passions—she symbolically leaves him before Gil actually breaks off their engagement.

But there is more.  Gil has developed feelings for the fascinating couturier Adriana but can’t even imagine that she could have feelings for him—she is involved with such powerful men—Picasso when he meets her, then Hemingway.  He is intimidated.  But the past intertwines with the present and Gil finds the experiences he needs to grow.   He discovers her published diary while browsing in a bookstall along the Seine.  She was attracted to him!   So that night, after her return from her fling with Hemingway, his inhibitions vanish and he kisses her.  And he says something about his engagement falling apart—taking a step towards actual change in the present by giving words to emerging feelings.   As the denouement of the film approaches, they sit together on a bench.  Adriana, as seer/Woody Allen stand-in, tells him that life is complex, unpredictable, and to be lived fully.  And then they wander into the 1890’s, La Belle Époque.  They meet Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas, who, it turns out, idealize the Renaissance as their Golden Age.  They invite Adriana, thrilled herself now, to design ballet costumes; she wants to stay in La Belle Époque, her Golden Age.  Gil, disappointed, resists: his Golden Age is the 20’s.  “But it’s the present, it’s dull,” Adriana counters.  And then Gil has his epiphany:

It’s not my present! . . . I was trying to escape my present the same way you’re trying to escape yours . . . I’m having an insight now . . . It explains the anxiety [in my nightmare]—I ran out of Zithromax and I went to the dentist and he didn’t have any Novocain . . .The present is a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.  . .

Adriana says quietly that she will make the choice to stay in her golden time, and reminds Gil that he once made a choice to leave Paris and then regretted it.  He replies:  “Now, if I ever want to write something worthwhile, I need to get rid of my illusion that I’ll be happier in the past.”  Meaningful art finds its inspiration in engagement with the present, Allen’s surrogate realizes after this loving and funny homage to an idealized past.  Gil has come to his senses and he and Adriana bid each other au revoir.   We have been witnesses to growth happening in front of our eyes.   A fog has lifted.  Gil’s confusion become clarity.  His self reorganizes.  He has the certainty that he wants to live in the present, but in an enlivened present that he now possesses the power to make choices to transform.

Stein later tells Gil that she and Hemingway think that his revised manuscript is something of value.  Hemingway has noticed, though, that the protagonist doesn’t see his fiancée’s infidelity.  Gil is stunned.  “It is denial,” he finally mumbles.  Hemingway has given him his way out of his engagement, and he wastes no time confronting Inez with her infidelity.   We last see Gil walking across the Pont Neuf, feeling joy in his newfound freedom.  Gabrielle, a salesperson in a curiosity shop—he had made a connection with her over their shared love of Cole Porter—is walking by.   They continue their flirtation, walking off together in the rain.  Midnight in Paris, a romantic comedy, wants us to believe that  Gil has found his soul mate.  Gabrielle, we imagine, will accompany him in his newly configured  present filled with possibilities for genuine creativity, connection, and fulfillment.

A profound and hopeful message about human possibility emerges in Midnight in Paris’ live-happily-ever-after ending:  at a tipping point in his life, Gil had to journey through the (idealized) past to find the affirming relationships that he needed to develop.  Adriana, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway—they all played their part as he found the clarity and courage to free himself from an encumbered, deadening present like the one evoked in his favorite poem, Elliot’s Prufrock.  He has become free to work and to love.  That is our hope for all our patients.

View from the Couch
One Comment to “View from the Couch: Midnight in Paris”
  1. Jolyn Welsh Wagner says:

    great discussion…I do think there is a hopeful message at the end of the film..and I loved the film..however, I would like to suggest that the message is a bit more “dark” than it initially appears..recall the manner in which ALL of the literary icons speak..hyperbolic cliches pepper much of what they say, although they are a friendly lot(after all they embrace Gil and read his manuscript etc)…is it possible that Gil’s speech-his epiphany one where he “wants to write something worthwile, I need to get rid of my illusion that I’ll be happier in the past…etc” has more than a bit of Woody Allen’s poking fun at Gil the way he did the other icons?…maybe the resolution is a bit tooo resolute for Woody’s taste and shouldn’t be accepted as face value any more than we did Hemmingway’s beefed up bravado….hmmmmmm..after all, this is the director who wrote Crimes and Misdemeanors…or am I just tooo jaded? After all, they’ll always have Paris….

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