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Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a successful Hollywood screenwriter of forgettable fluff, a skilled writer who longs to be a true author. Visiting Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her conservative parents, he is taken in by the lore of the old artistic city, wanting nothing more than to take walks in the rain and explore the depths of the rich historical tapestry and romance of the beloved European setting. Inez is less than thrilled though and has no interest in reflecting on the past, leaving Gil to wander about on his own. So he does.
One evening, after a few drinks, Gil gets lost after leaving Inez and her friends at a wine tasting (led by an obnoxious know-it-all played by Michael Sheen). He ends up on a cobblestoned side street at, wait for it, midnight, and notices a 1920s Peugeot Type 176 pull up in front of him where some colorfully dressed passengers beckon him to join them. He hops in and they drive off to a party, which Gil notices is era-themed to be like the 1920s. Or is it? Almost right away, he meets a couple who introduce themselves as Zelda (Alison Pill) and Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston). Gil can’t believe what he’s seeing, and he soon realizes he’s actually traveled back to the time of his dreams, where writers and artists flourished in Paris. Before he can even catch his breath, the Fitzgerald’s take him to see none other than Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who regals in epic tales of wartime gallantry and courage. He also agrees to show Gil’s current unpublished book to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), to which Gil is of course, beside himself with excitement.
From there, Gil learns that he can only visit this time at midnight, on the same cobbled street, and so, departs each evening to spend intellectual time with these historical legends. Along the way though, in Stein’s home, he also meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a kind of art groupy, an astonishingly beautiful young woman who Gil falls for as strongly as she does to him. Naturally, there are issues.
Directed by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris is a nearly flawless little film with a touching message about living in the present while honoring the past. Wilson is at his best, and perfectly cast, easily reminding viewers of early Allen appearances, capturing the wonder and humor that so many Allen characters embody. Clever, insightful, funny, and warm-hearted, it’s a love letter to both the city and the great artists that inspired the director. But there is a strange moment near the end of the film that, after a second thought, raises some concerns. And by “concerns” I mean straight-up what the . . . ? And in the universe that Allen creates, begs a number of questions. Let’s talk about the doomed detective in Midnight in Paris.
Inez’s father John (Kurt Fuller) has never quite seen eye-to-eye with Gil, the two being on the opposite ends of just about any issue, though they manage to maintain a cordial if not familial closeness. John, being a protective father wanting only the best for his daughter, is generally happy with Gil who has a good income and a respectful if not fulfilling job, but Gil’s odd behavior in Paris has him somewhat concerned. He goes to a detective agency and hires the service to follow his future son-in-law and see where he goes at night, as lately he disappears in the evening and doesn’t return until very late (or rather early). A man named Détective Tisserant (Gad Elmaleh) is assigned the case.
Tisserant never has any interaction with Gil, and is seen only three times, briefly, in the film. The first is his introduction. The second is in shadow as he watches Gil climb into the back of the Peugeot, the vehicle that travels in time. Tisserant is seen following.
He is then forgotten, at least by the film for a bit as we follow Gil’s story. Gil travels to the 20s again to spend time with Adriana, who is infatuated with the 1890s, a time she thinks is really the true Golden Age of Paris. The two share some intimacy and deeper truths. Their fate, I’ll leave you to discover. Maybe you can already guess.
Tisserant seems left to the vapors. We learn that he is missing, that the detective agency reported he never returned. It’s a throwaway line accompanied by a short sequence where we see him for the third and final time. The hapless investigator is in the Versailles of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, where he interrupts their breakfast. He is then chased out by guards of the palace, running for his life. And then . . . well, no. There is no “and then.” That’s it. Tisserant is not seen again. Here’s the scene:[WPGP gif_id=”26668″ width=”650″]
The importance and impact of this moment is almost impossible to describe but perhaps most notable is its establishment of authenticity at least. Watching the movie, it might be easy to dismiss Gil’s experiences as fantasy or imagination, effects of long walks in the inspirational City of Lights. But this moment changes all that. Tisserant is in eighteenth century France and not only that, has somehow gained entrance to the seat of its government and into the dining hall of the king of France. This means that Gil really did go to the 20s. He really did meet all those famous artists and writers. And he really is falling love with another woman. Tisserant however, is not so lucky.
While it’s played for a laugh, and let’s face it, it’s pretty darn funny, it’s also really, really dark. Two things possibly happen: A) Tisserant is, in no uncertain terms, one dead detective. As that scene cuts away, it’s all over. Tisserant is trapped in a huge palace, which is essentially a 67,000 m2 (721,182 ft2) heavily-guarded walled city. Time cornered that poor investigator to his doom and left him to be a pre-revolutionary beheaded statistic, even while the age of Enlightenment was sweeping through Europe. There’s little doubt that Tisserant’s absurd explanation would fall on discretionary ears. No. This guy got introduced to the business end of a Guillotine’s blade pretty quick . . . or B) Tisserant altered history and changed the very course of humanity for all time. Don’t think so? Well the very limitations of this writing platform prevent me from listing the near uncountable possible ways he could have affected the future as we know it. As a Parisian, and certainly educated, his knowledge of his country’s monarchal past (and world history) could have easily won him instant fame and placed him in high regard and wonder, giving him great wealth, power and, depending on his approach, even magical abilities. Seriously. He wasn’t ever sleeping alone after that.
Of course, we’ll never know. Midnight in Paris isn’t his story, but Tisserant does help solidify Gil’s. What we know about that pocket of time travel on that cobbled street corner is that it takes the dreamer to an era of their deepest desires. For Gil, it was the 20s, a time of literary and musical evolution. For Adriana, it was the 1890s, the end of a century where a new age of artistic expressionism broke from staid traditions. For a quiet detective randomly sent to follow an American screenwriter through the streets of Paris as midnight, it was the royal courts of a pre-industrial France. His fate is left for the viewer to decide, and while his part in the neatly tied together story of Gil Pender is slight, his role in the film is the one we should be talking about.
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Stars: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Michael Sheen, Kurt Fuller