The opening scenes alone should be sufficient to bring out your inner Francophile; if you've never walked the streets of the L'Avenue des Champs Elysées or loitered in the Place de la Concorde, the movie will have you yearning for Paris in a heartbeat. And who can blame such a feeling? The movie is predicated on the love we all have for some romantic getaway or, to use their own phrase, a “golden age” where the grass is really greener than our own meagre grazing ground. Gil and his fiance, Inez, go on a short trip to Paris, having “freeloaded” with Inez's father and mother. Her father is an ironic foil to Gil; the father is forced by his job to stay in the land of Jeane d'Arc but cannot bring himself to any love of the beauty of France, whereas Gil is madly in love with the city but is divided whether he should abandon his well-paying Hollywood job to reside there. The movie revolves around Gil's existential conflict: he writes hackneyed movie scripts but wants to be a great writer of literature; he is in a relationship with a mediocre and materialist woman but yearns for someone with high ideals and equally hopeless romanticism; he lives in a stolid flat in America but wants to pace the rain-soaked streets of Paris at midnight. Romanticism is the name of the game in this film.
And there is one period for which Gil is particularly romantic: the 1920s of Paris, which harbored his beloved literary idols of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, and so on. [Here's where the spoilers begin, so please read no further if you don't want me to ruin the conceit at the heart of the movie!] One night, on a slightly drunken walk through the streets of Paris after being abandoned by his half-hearted fiance, he is picked up by a vehicle that seems to be out of its age in post-millenial France. He gets in and is taken back in time to the Paris of the 1920s, discovering there all his objects of literary admiration. He is fascinated and tries to live a double life between the present (which lacks any interest for him between his materialist fiance and in-laws-to-be, the pedantic old love interest of his fiance, and his superficial Hollywood writing) and the 1920s. Eventually, he enters a crisis as he falls in love with a woman from the past (who yearns even further back for her golden age of the late 19th century) but cannot be with her as he has his fiance in the present.
It leads Gil to two very existentialist conclusions – the “moral” of the movie. The first is the Woody Allen staple that the universe is absurd and meaningless, only acquiring meaning which we human beings put there. Paris, in a particularly philosophic moment, is seen by Gil as the greatest party in the universe; because we have created our own meaning, we now need to rejoice in it. The other is that yearning for a golden age ignores the reality of the present and causes one to be inauthentic or divided. It is, to use Sartre's language, “bad faith” to yearn to be someone you aren't or to not acknowledge your freedom to change who you are. Gil's eventual move is to leave behind the past and accept his freedom in the present, to engage himself in the here-and-now and become authentic to his freedom. While I find the lack of purpose a problematic element, I think we can take the latter message of the movie in a sense that looks to the Christian understanding of Christ's second coming: to act today to image the person and the world you want to exist, “to use the things of this world as if not engrossed in them, for the world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31).
My rating: 8.0 out of 10