The year 2011 proved that Ernest Hemingway is still hot, culturally-speaking. Fifty years after his death, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost 1934 – 1961 by Paul Hendrickson was published. The Paris Wife (a fictionalized account Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson) by Paula McLain also hit the New York Times Best Seller List. To top the year off, Corey Stoll portrayed Woody Allen’s take on Hemingway in Midnight in Paris.
Allen uses A Moveable Feast (Hemingway’s posthumous collection of essays about living in Paris in the ’20s) as the foundation for Midnight in Paris. In the book, Hemingway wrote: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” (A moveable feast refers to a holy day of feasting or fasting in Christianity that isn’t fixed and moves each year in response to the equinox. For example, Easter is a moveable feast.) Allen gives us a feast for the eyes with stunning shots of Paris as his characters move about the city, coupled with the period jazz that is characteristic of Allen’s movies.
Many of Hemingway’s stories give an inside view of what it was like to live in Paris in the roaring ’20s. He gives insight into writing and his relationships with other non-Parisian writers and artists who called the city of lights home. The book is peppered with the literati of the time, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Ford Maddox Ford.
In Midnight in Paris, Allen stays behind the scenes and gives the role of the main, neurotic character to Owen Wilson, who does an incredible job of depicting Gil, a frustrated writer obsessed with the aforementioned writers and Paris in the ’20s. As the film opens, we find him on vacation in Paris with his uptight fiancé, Inez (played by Rachel McAdams). It’s evident right away that they couldn’t be more mismatched. Gil is a dreamer who makes his living writing movie scripts in Hollywood, but really wants to be a novelist. He yearns to walk Paris at night, hoping for inspiration for his book while Inez only likes Paris for the fashion designers and just wants to get back to Hollywood so she and Gil can tie the knot and move to Malibu.
One night, Gil decides to talk one of those longed-for midnight walks. As he sits on a picturesque Parisian street, the bell in a clock tower strikes midnight and an antique car pulls around the corner and stops. Thus ensues a Cinderella moment for any writer. The people inside, bedecked in ’20s regalia, beckon him inside and drive him to a jazz club where he meets F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill). Later, Fitzgerald introduces him to Ernest Hemingway.
Stoll looks like Hemingway and gives a gallant performance as the writer with lines like, “I think a woman is equal to a man in courage. Have you ever shot a charging lion? ” When Gil asks him to read his novel Hemingway replies: “If it’s bad, I’ll hate it. If it’s good, then I’ll be envious and hate it even more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.”
This depiction of Hemingway as a rugged braggart is a common one, but in A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition, published in 2009, the author comes across as a bit despairing and frustrated, but never over the top. This could be due to Hemingway reeling himself in as the author of his own book, or the reason could be the book’s editing, which has caused an uproar among readers and literary critics.
The restored version is the same book, but edited by Hemingway’s grandson, Sean, and includes previously unpublished chapters. There have been claims that Sean Hemingway didn’t like the way Hemingway’s last wife, Mary, originally put together the manuscript. In the end, however, the words are still Hemingway’s and the first edition was published posthumously in 1964, so it’s never been clear what Hemingway really wanted readers to see.
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway reflects on the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his notoriously unstable wife Zelda, who was the light of Fitzgerald’s life and also the main hindrance to his writing. Hemingway wrote that Zelda was jealous of Fitzgerald’s success because she was also a writer, and saw her husband as her ultimate competitor. Allen incorporates this tension in the film with bickering between the couple about Fitzgerald’s writing.
Hemingway wrote about this relationship extensively in A Moveable Feast “…When he was drunk he would usually come to find me and, drunk, he took almost as much pleasure interfering with my work as Zelda did interfering with his. This continued for years but, for years too, I had no more loyal friend than Scott when he was sober.”
Gertrude Stein (played by Kathy Bates) is depicted the way Hemingway describes her in his book. Bates shines as the opinionated, grandiose, and kind critic. In addition, a whole host of other luminaries of the time, including Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and Man Ray (Tom Cordier) make amusing appearances in the film.
All of this is seen through the eyes of Gil, whose naivety and childlike wonder are coupled with the neuroticism that Allen’s protagonists normally possess. At one point, Gil walks back into time even further to Paris’s La Belle Époque (‘beautiful era’, between 1871, after the French-German war and before 1941, the start of World War I), enters a glamorous smoky cabaret, and says, “What is it with this city? I need to write a letter to the Chamber of Commerce,” in classic, Allen fasion.
Like many Allen characters, Gil is disillusioned and pining for something, which in this case is an idealized time period, a golden age. As Gil interacts with his literary heroes, he comes to realize they are just as dissatisfied as he is with their place and time, and they, too, are longing for a past they imagine. After meeting a girl named Adriana (Marion Cortillard) he learns that she, too, yearns for a different time – La Belle Époque, to be exact.
Gil finally finds clarity when he says to Adriana, as they are magically transported to a Cabaret during her dreamed-of era, “If you stay here, and this becomes your present then pretty soon you’ll start imagining another time was really your… golden time. That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.”
Hemingway compared Paris to a moveable feast because no matter what time it is, Paris is always the magnificent city of lights. Allen expands on Hemingway’s testimony by showing us onscreen why Paris is so magical.
Ernest Hemingway in Paris (Photo Credit: “Ernest Hemingway Collection/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)