I have seen this movie twice this summer and have been moved each time by the beautifully imagined and realized journeys into Paris of the 1920s and, more briefly, of La Belle Époque taken by the protagonist Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson), a screenwriter and aspiring novelist with a strongly romantic bent. How seductive the salons, bars, nightclubs, and cobbled and gaslit streets where a writer can commune with the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein and listen to Cole Porter play and sing the music that became standards of the American songbook. The seduction becomes more intense when Gil meets the classically beautiful Adriana, lover of Picasso, Modigliani, and others. It is no wonder that he sits on the church steps night after night waiting for the bell to chime midnight and for the ancient cab to pull up and transport him to another encounter with his literary and artistic heroes or with Adriana, who is drawing him away from the increasingly distasteful present-day prospect of marriage to a woman entirely unsuited to his nature.
Gil Pender is a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He is also a very unhappy Hollywood screenwriter; he has long wanted to write a novel and is currently working on a story about a man who owns a nostalgia shop. Gil has come to Paris with his fiancée, Inez, the shallow, snobbish daughter of rich, conservative, and shallow, snobbish parents. It is clear from the start that these two are absolutely not meant for each other. Gil adores Paris and wants to stay; he loves wandering the streets—even in the rain, perhaps especially in the rain—exploring the little shops, watching people in the sidewalk cafés. He believes that Paris is where he can finish his novel, completing the transformation from Hollywood hack to true writer. Inez, on the other hand, is the stereotypical philistine American tourist: Paris is okay but…. When she meets up with another American couple, she is immediately taken up with the excruciatingly pedantic Paul, who knows everything about everything French. Gil is repulsed by the falsehood of this little circle and begins spending more time on his own.
One night when Gil has once again opted out of spending time with in the tedious company of Paul and his girlfriend—and Inez—Gil gets lost on his way back to the hotel. He ends up sitting on the steps of a church just before midnight. As the church bell begins to chime the hour, a gleaming 1920 Peugeot Landaulet pulls up to the curb and stops. The cab’s passengers, clearly in a festive spirit fuelled by champagne, urge him into the car. Gil quickly gives in to their exhortations to join them in their revelry and is whisked off to a lively party at a timeless location in the City of Light.
At the party Gil soon becomes aware that the company is unusual. The fellow playing the piano and singing is remarkably like Cole Porter and a young woman introduces herself as Zelda Fitzgerald; when she learns Gil is a writer she calls out to “Scott” to come and meet him. The look on Gil’s face when he realizes where he has landed is worth the price of admission alone. The romantic young novelist is soon swept into the literary world of the Fitzgeralds. He meets Hemingway, then Stein, then Picasso. And he meets Adriana (gorgeously and deliciously played by Marion Cotillard), the wistful romantic who mirrors his own character.
Night after night he returns to the church and to the literary and artistic world of the twenties to which he has become so romantically attached. It is interesting that screenwriter/director Woody Allen has made all the great figures into caricatures: the self-absorbed Zelda, the party-loving Fitzgerald, the cliché-spouting Hemingway, the grandiloquently vapid Dali. When Gil asks Hemingway to read his manuscript, the great man defers to Stein, who offers the most unhelpful advice—in fact, it is no advice at all.
It is only Gil’s mirror image, and his love object, Adriana, who is a fully developed character. Gil of 2010 loves the 1920’s; Adriana of the Jazz Age is drawn to La Belle Époque. And when an elegant carriage conducts them to Maxim’s and they meet Lautrec, Degas, and Matisse, who offer Adriana the opportunity to remain in the golden age of Paris, Gil realizes the folly of trying to live in a past era and spurns her offer to remain with her.
Meanwhile in his daytime wanderings, Gil has met Gabrielle, the proprietor of a shop that specializes in old records. He is drawn to the shop one day when he hears the singing voice of Cole Porter—the same voice he heard at the magical party. He chats briefly with Gabrielle, who is attractive and warm but definitely not the siren that Adriana represents. Nevertheless, the viewer senses a certain wisdom in Gabrielle and the vague initiation of a kinship between them.
I will not reveal the final unfolding of the plot although the astute reader will likely have guessed. Suffice it to say that Gil not only recognizes that we must all live in the now, but more important, we must all be who we really are; as long as we continue to deny our true nature, our true path, our true bliss, we will remain in a confused and conflicted condition.
Wonderful performances by all the players, including the caricatured jazz-age celebrities. My personal favourites are Marion Cotillard (you cannot take your eyes off her when she is on screen), Kathy Bates (a favourite in everything she does), and Adrian Brody as Dali. I wonder how long it will take viewers to realize who Owen Wilson is channelling as Gil.
All in all, this is both a charming and deeply meaningful film.