Who hasn’t dreamed of walking along the Canal Saint-Martin with a charming companion, sometime during the 40s? Obviously, it will be raining and a lone busker will be playing an appropriate tune on his accordion. The charming companion (who is a secret agent working to bring down the Vichy Regime) will then take off his smart jacket and drape it on my shoulders and then whisp… er, ahem… what was I talking about? Ah yes, nostalgia.
We are all guilty of wishing we lived in a different era, often because they are imagined to be a simpler or better time (for me, it’s a toss-up between candy-stripers and flappers). But it is only because we are fairly confident that we cannot actually be transported back to that time. Deep down, all of us escapists and romantics know that our nostalgia is nothing but a fear of the vague uncertainty of the future. Let’s face it: reality can be awfully depressing and the present is always the worst time to be born, but indoor plumbing, antibiotics, equal rights and the internet make life sweet.
However, it takes a special kind of artist and fellow romantic like Woody Allen to desist from being cynical about such nostalgia-seekers. Only he would think to remind us that even the greatest minds of history were dissatisfied with their times and that it is okay to dream of a better yesterday.
Owen Wilson plays a self-avowed Hollywood hack trying his hand at writing a real piece of literature: a novel about a man who works in a nostalgia shop. He visits Paris with his fiancee, Rachel McAdams and her staunchly Republican family and he is swept away by the small cafes where, presumably, intellectuals hold forth over bottles of cheap wine, romantic garrets where tormented artists ought to live and gramophone records with a story. His fiancee on the other hand, is all set to settle down in a swanky Malibu condo and thinks that rain is something that gets you wet and miserable and destroys those gorgeous pumps. After a small disagreement with her, he ends up walking along a cobbled street, when the clock strikes twelve and a 1920s era Rolls Royce pulls up and the passengers invite him to a party. It isn’t any old party: it’s a party for Jean Cocteau and the guests are Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Audacious? Absolutely. Silly? Not even for a second.
At some point in the movie, Gertrude Stein says that writers cannot be defeatist. It is their job to lift the reader from the crushing depression of reality and Woody does this marvellously: this film encapsulates all the virtues from his greatest works. The whimsy of The Purple Rose of Cairo, the wit of Manhattan, the cheekiness of Mighty Aphrodite and the overwhelming joy of Everyone Says I Love You (which, coincidentally(?), happen to be all my favourite works of his).
If Woody Allen stopped making movies tomorrow, this film would be a fitting epilogue to his oeuvre. Owen Wilson is just a young, less neurotic Woody circa Manhattan, with a soupcon of the wistfulness of Mia Farrow circa The Purple Rose of Cairo.
There is a joy and a passion in devotional works that are beyond compare. “Love” seems like such a shallow emotion in comparison. And what can one revere more than a city? Books and works of art simply cannot hope to compete with a city; even a mere street or alleyway is bursting with so much life, Woody says. And right there is the mantra to every Woody Allen movie ever made: he never has the arrogance to compete with or even simplify a city to a formula. He just makes devotional works to sing a city’s praise and meld with its cultural ethos. That’s what any artist worth his or her salt did: be it Vermeer’s view of Delft, Edith Piaf singing about the skies of Paris or Billy Joel’s state of mind. Cities are more than just a personality; they are deities. Which is why we worship them, curse them when it rains, curse them when it doesn’t rain, defend them strenuously when foreigners dare to curse them and we are haplessly bound to them.
Thanks to Woody, I know I’m going to be terribly disappointed when I visit New York and hear no jazz background number to accompany my stroll down a street in Manhattan.
Bottom line? You wont be able to hate this movie. I encourage you to try, but you will fail. You may not love it as much as I did, but that’s only because I suspect Woody peeked into my secret journal (which totally does not exist) where I’ve specifically stated that the world needs more movies like The Purple Rose of Cairo and that if I had a time machine, I’d head straight to the 20s. You may dismiss this film as a confection: delightful, but not satiating. I disagree. The sparkling wit and humour that one has come to expect from a Woody Allen film never took away from the depth of the dialogue. It gave every single cameo relevance, rather than rendering them into mere crowd-pleasers. Despite having a rather bold story that takes suspension of disbelief to a completely different level, he masterfully weaved the many themes together to create a very realistic fantasy. Add to that the fact that the cast was perfectly chosen and that even the most dislikable characters brought substance to the film (as opposed to existing solely as foils to the protagonist), that what you have here is a film that is wise and will remain ever-watchable.
After a long line of forgettable films, the inimitable Woody Allen is back.