In search of romantic advice in Paris, Gil (Owen Wilson) asks Carla Bruni. More precisely, he asks an unnamed tour guide at the Rodin Sculpture Garden who’s played by Carla Bruni. Gil has his reasons: he’s feeling lonely and confused, torn between two women, and the tour guide seems knowledgeable. And of course, the unnamed guide looks fetching in her white blouse and slim-fit jeans. Carla Bruni seems an ideal French fantasy.
At the same time, being in a Woody Allen movie, Carla Bruni also serves as a joke about that ideal. Gil, being the Woody Allen figure in Midnight in Paris, is distracted from seeing what’s in front of him. “Is it possible to love two people at the same time?” he asks the guide, before he answers himself, sort of. “That’s very French. You guys are much more advanced.” The guide nods.
The two people Gil has in mind are about as different as they could be. The first is his wealthy fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams), with whom he’s visiting Paris along with her wealthy parents John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy), neither especially pleased with their son-in-law-to-be. The second is a more or less a literal fantasy, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), whom he meets when a magical midnight taxi ride lands him in Paris of the 1920s. Adriana hangs out with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill), and oh yes, she’s Picasso’s (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) mistress. Though he spends but a few moments with her, she represents the past Paris that so enchants him, where American expatriates found themselves and made art, the Paris that is not the one he faces now.
The movie allows that Gil’s view might be skewed, that he’s entered into the 1920s because he’s feeling out of place in his own time. Like so many other Woody Allen figures, Gil is prone to yearning and dreaming, to worrying and second-guessing. As much as he imagines another time and place will fulfill his desires, so too he imagines another girl will help. It’s easy to see why Inez is not working out: she likes to shop and go dancing, she wants Gil to keep churning out Hollywood scripts and give up on writing his novel. She’s also too easily impressed with her pretentious ex, Paul (Michael Sheen), who declares himself an expert on everything, from French architecture to Monet to Rodin.
You’ve seen enough Woody Allen movies to know that Paul’s a cad and Inez is shallow. And you know too that even as Gil comes to believe in his novel because Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) gives it an okay. His midnight excursions allow him to act out something like the plot of his novel, which is vaguely described as being “about the owner of a nostalgia shop.” It’s cute and funny when his new ‘20s friends have to ask what a nostalgia shop is, as their era hasn’t so blatantly commercialized the impulse to fantasize by collecting. Still, Adriana shares his sense of what’s wrong with the present: “It’s boring,” she says, merely because it is the present.
Gil’s pursuit of wisdom in the past (what’s past to him, anyway) occasions several amusing encounters, with Hemingway (Corey Stoll) (“No story is terrible if the subject is true! If the prose is clean and honest!”) and with Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) (“I am Dali!”). Their pronouncements are no less audacious than, say, Paul’s, but Gil sees them through the prism of his own desire, as well as his fandom. Their work has stood a test of time, but what he’s missing, apparently, is that they also reimagined their own present. They saw what was in front of them in new ways, whereas he’s perpetually transfixed by what’s come before.
You actually hear very little about Gil’s manuscript, only that it sounds like science fiction. Still, Gert’s brief notes to him include an admonition concerning the “artist’s job,” which is “not to succumb to despair, but to provide an antidote.” Midnight in Paris doesn’t specify whether such an antidote might include the hacky scripts Gil so dislikes, or whether it means a particular sort of uplift, the “green light” at the end of Daisy’s dock. Rather, it does what Woody Allen’s lighter-touch movies do, assembling obvious metaphors, talky comedy, and familiar lessons.
As Gil feels that he belongs elsewhere, or seeks salvation in Paris, he reprises themes familiar to fans of Woody Allen’s movies. Just so, as he moves back and forth in time, he comes to recognize what’s in front of him, including a fellow Cole Porter fan and nostalgia vendor named Gabrielle (Lea Seydoux). Lovely, sympathetic, and oh so young, she helps Gil to sort through the past, a process slightly more complicated than consuming it. (She also looks like Mia Farrow, but who wants to start sorting through that past?)
If that process is neither initiated nor resolved by Gil’s consultation with Carla Bruni, it is neatly summarized there. They stroll past perfectly trimmed hedges, they gaze upon The Thinker, and they share an appreciation for art and history. However you read her—as a sign of superficiality and ambition, or as a woman of grace, culture, and self-awareness—Carla Bruni embodies a new past in the making, to be appreciated as such in the unknown future.