Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Here is a movie I loved: Loved so much that I saw it four times within my return flights between London and Calcutta. This beautifully crafted Woody Allen movie, third in his series of exploring various great European cities (after Matchpoint in London and Vicky Christina Barcelona in Barcelona), puts middle class Americans in an alien setting yet again. But this is a different movie from the depressing Matchpoint or the erotic Barcelona, this is magical. Like the other two movies, this is indeed about love and human frailties, with an acute understanding of American (shall we say universal) middle class values and lifestyles transposed in the middle of an unfamiliar, yet stereotyped, setting.

I shall be honest: I love the movie because I love Paris. Those who know me know that I shall much rather live in Paris than anywhere else in the world. And, this movie touches my heart, exactly where it matters: Isn't my greatest wish to escape my conformist surroundings and be able to live in a world of ideas, full of dreamy pursuits and intelligent conversations, creative friendships and intellectual bonding? This is where Paris charms me: I can go back to the city again and again, and spend hours looking at Brassai, Cartier Bresson and Atget's photos, watching the slightly melancholy french movies and fantasizing about taking a writerly sabbatical in a Paris apartment from the boringly conformist life that I lead.

This movie brings it all back. I was struggling to think whether various celebrities, characters and actors, were a distraction. While I loved the characters of Hemingway (the way he says that no story is dull if the prose is clear and emotions are true) and Adrianna (the always adorable Marion Cotillard), I thought Allen, very subtly, mocks the celebrity obsessed culture of our lives by making them available aplenty. In fact, Dali (Adrian Brody in a little cameo role), Picasso, Bunuel, Man Ray, Eliot, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Degas appear almost without consequence, and towards the end, the protagonist, Gill Pender of Pasadena, California, gets bold enough to suggest an idea for a movie to Bunuel, which would presumably become Exterminating Angels later. I needed to see the movie so many times to go beyond the characters and discover Paris dominate all of them: It is the core of the story, at least to me, where the city, its life, shapes its people.

There are moments which I shall remember from the movie, particularly the one where Gill Pender goes to find the Rodin Museum Guide, an impeccable Carla Bruni, to ask whether a man can love two women at the same time. Drawing on an earlier conversation on Rodin's life, Bruni refers to his love for Rose, the wife, and Camille, the mistress, and says 'he can, but love them differently'. To which, in one of the film's most memorable dialogues, Pender says, 'that's very.. French.. you know you are so much ahead of us in that department!'

Indeed, for all the splendors of Paris though, the movie is ultimately about America and the Americans. I would suspect that's what Woody Allen does: In his European films, he is interrogating the American Middle Class ideas of Love, Adventure and Creativity unsparingly. But still this resonates with me - because these middle middle class percepts are so universal - I can almost identify the pedantic man, his awe-struck girlfriend, the lovely but lost fiancee of Gill Pender, and her parents. What is not normal, it ought not to be, is the melancholy Adrianna, who all men possibly desire and never meet, the unstoppably heroic Hemingway, the tortured Zelda and her loving husband Scott, all of whom bring us to a different city of possibilities, all melting into a girl-next-door Gabrielle, who bring all those possibilities to near-earth by her love of Cole Porter jazz and by simply walking in the rains.

In the end, I am left with a deep desire - for my life in the attic in Paris - but also a deep sense of melancholy. My sense of space breaks down: Calcutta looks a lot like Paris, with its decadent charm, intellectual sophistry, and its people. Only the pride missing, I say, and see the office-bound executives lined up in cars, swarming the streets oblivious of the sheer charm of the pavements. I walk: Walk in Calcutta and in London (strangely, in Delhi, I can't find the pavement), and search for that magical moment when the cars of the past stop for me. I get transposed, to a different level of thinking. That was the charm of this movie.

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

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