I now have new favourite Woody Allen film! This is brilliant - from start to finish. The casting, setting, the way it's shot and the conceptualisation are all top drawer - well done Mr Allen.
WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS
Gil is a successful Hollywood writer visiting Paris with his fiancee Inez and her overbearingly conservative parents. Gil is struggling with his first novel - a story about a man who runs a nostalgia shop. He finds great inspiration in the streets of Paris and wants to move there to write after his wedding. Inez is not keen. Gil and Inez bump into Paul and his wife Carol, as Paul - who annoyingly knows all there is to know about everything - is on a lecture tour to the Sorbonne. Inez confesses to an earlier crush on Paul which puts even greater distance between the style and aspirations of Gil and Paul. After a night of wine-tasting, Paul and Carol invite Gil and Inez to go dancing. A tipsy Gil declines and wants to walk back to the hotel to sober up.
As Gil sits disconsolately on some steps, the bells strike midnight and a veteran limousine stops and its party-going occupants all dressed in 1920's garb and quaffing Champagne invite Gil to join them. As they arrive at a club Gil is introduced first to F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda and then to an array of literary and artistic heroes from Gil's golden era of the 1920's - including Gertrude Stein who offers to critique Gil's manuscript. As Gil leaves the club it returns to its contemporary guise as a launderette. Did he imagine it? Was it a fantasy? what is going on?
In the morning he tries to explain it to Inez who joking accuses him of some drunken fling. That night Gil goes back to the same steps and a midnight the car appears and whisks him off to another night of partying with the bohemian revellers. He delivers the manuscript to Stein and also he meets Picasso's lover Adriana with whom he gradually falls in love. Returning for a third night he is grateful for Stein's incisive critique and her encouragement to continue. Woody Allen is never short on irony and the Stien character delivers the wonderful line "what is a nostalgia shop?".
Night by night Gil returns to the 1920's and meets more literary heroes and gets deeper into his relationship with Adriana. Meanwhile Inez and her parents continue to the American in Paris thing and whilst Gil has nightly liaisons with Adriana, Inez spends each night with Paul and Carol. Gil buys a book in an antique market which turns out to Adriana's published diary which makes direct reference to Gil - the first indication that Gil's experience is real and not an illusion. Gil confides in Dali, Bunuel and Man Ray and confesses his confusion and guilt. As surrealists they see no contradiction in his position and readily accept that he is from the future - more great Allenesque irony!
One night as Gil and Adriana are walking they kiss and immediately a horse and carriage pulls up and whisks them away to Maxim's where they meet Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin - they are back in the Belle Epoque of the 1890's - Adriana's golden age.
Tempted to stay with Adriana, Gil eventually concludes in a surge of existential realism that the here and now is the best place to be. The way the story ends could have been schmaltzy but Allen takes the arc of the story in a pleasing trajectory and, to my mind and heart, resolves the narrative satisfactorily - I won't spoil the ending for you.
So what is this film saying to us? Lots of things I think:
- Creativity has to draw on what has gone before.
- However rose-tinted our view of a golden age might be, we are called to be here and now.
- History paints generously.
- Stories are intertwined and we need to be able to move from one to another if we are to be true to ourselves.
- True love has a cost.
- Nostalgia may be a modern invention.
- The pursuit of reality can be achieved via fantasy.
Perhaps most of all the film presents an ironic essay on nostalgia and our longing for things to be different. In his book Into The Dark Craig Detweiler has a fascinating chapter on nostalgia where he takes the central theme of the film Finding Neverland as the jumping off point for an exploration of nostalgia in film. Detweiler writes “What pain are we avoiding via memory? Is the West in exile? Are we pining for a former era, fixated on the good ‘ol days? Or is nostalgia a genuine, God-given consolation in a troubled world?” But for some, nostalgia is anything but appealing. People who are oppressed tend to look forward to a better day – apocalyptic and sci-fi serve this function well.
What are we trying to achieve when we indulge in nostalgia? Is it a distraction, a dissatisfaction with the present, a critique of today? Why are our high streets populated with shops offering a over-priced and tacky collection of memorabilia - and then from eras and events where we were the victors. Nostalgia never seeks out the Crimea or the Suez crisis for example and emerging films set in Iraq or Afghanistan are too close for nostalgia as they attempt to ameliorate the pain felt all too acutely by too many. How far in the past does something have to be for it to engender a sense of nostalgia?