Decoding Woody Allen's 'Midnight in Paris'

Many a writer or artist has longed to travel back in time to the sizzling Paris of the 1920s, to sip absinthe with Ernest Hemingway at Les Deux Magots or dine on choucroute garnie with Picasso at La Rotonde. What has beguiled audiences about the new Woody Allen movie, "Midnight in Paris," is that the protagonist, Gil, a disenchanted Hollywood screenwriter played by Owen Wilson, gets to live that fantasy.

He runs into Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at a soiree, where he hears Cole Porter crooning "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)." He gets writing advice from a laconic Hemingway, persuades Gertrude Stein to read the manuscript of his novel, and falls in love with Picasso's mistress. He meets Salvador Dali, T.S. Eliot, Josephine Baker, Luis Bunuel and others of Jazz Age Paris, the center of the post-World War I artistic universe.

The movie sometimes assumes viewers know the details of its luminous lives. So it may be helpful to understand some of the complicated relationships.


In 1922, Hemingway and his wife, Hadley, took a two-room flat near the Sorbonne that had no hot water and no indoor toilet. He also rented a room around the corner to write, something like the "attic with a skylight" Gil craves. It had a view of the smokestacks and rooftops that Allen captures in worshipful shots of the city. Hemingway also discovered Shakespeare & Company, a bookstore near the Jardin du Luxembourg that became a crossroads for Americans in Paris. It's where he borrowed books by Turgenev and Tolstoy, and it makes a cameo in the film.

The Fitzgeralds

In "Midnight in Paris," Hemingway tells Fitzgerald that Zelda, a writer herself, sees her husband as a competitor and, more forcefully, that "she's jealous of his gift and it's a fine gift." Hemingway grew to despise Zelda, partly because she had betrayed Fitzgerald with a French aviator and partly because he blamed her decadent tempestuousness for ruining her husband's productivity.

Picasso and Matisse

Picasso and Matisse also had a famous rivalry, barely acknowledged in the film, with the two artists echoing - some critics say swiping - each other's themes. Both gained the attention of the art collector Leo Stein and his sister, Gertrude. In the film, Gil hears that Gertrude Stein has bought a Matisse for 500 francs and, in the hope of making a time-bending killing, asks her if he could pick up "six or seven" Matisses as well. The twice-married Picasso was famous for mistresses, and in the film Marion Cotillard plays Adriana, a capricious, if melancholy, stand-in for all of Picasso's lovers, models and muses.

Cole Porter

The Indiana-born Cole Porter maintained an elegant apartment, where he gave hedonistic parties that were daring for their mingling of gay and straight friends. Porter met and married Linda Lee Thomas, a divorcee from Louisville who was eight years older and aware that he was gay. They set up an even more lavish apartment - walls covered in zebra hide - near Les Invalides, a home that seems like the setting for the on-screen party where Porter entertains his guests at the piano.

The film recounts how many Porter songs were homages to Paris - "I Love Paris" and "C'est Magnifique," among them - and indeed Porter wrote a musical, "Paris," for the chanteuse, Irene Bordoni.

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