Americans in Paris

The nebbishy Woody Allen and the handsome Gene Kelly, a leading man in American movies during the 1940s and 1950s, seem like Hollywood opposites. But in his newest film, Midnight in Paris, Allen has borrowed a page from Kelly?s 1951 classic musical, An American in Paris, and reminded us how often Paris has been the intellectual frontier for America?s writers and artists.

Woody Allen?s history lesson could not be timelier. It is almost enough to distract us from the French banking crisis and the sordid Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault controversy. The great pity is that Allen?s lighthearted film, which continues to draw American audiences months after its release, has been patronized as being little more than fluff, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Midnight in Paris in the perfect companion to historian David McCullough?s recently published The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, an account of the impact nineteenth-century Paris had on such Americans as novelist James Fenimore Cooper, inventor Samuel Morse, and sculptor August Saint-Gaudens. At the core of Allen?s film and McCullough?s book is the power of Paris to change visitors as it beguiles them. The film that Allen is indebted to, An American in Paris, which marks its sixtieth anniversary this year, provides, in the guise of a musical, the kind of search for authenticity that is part of McCullough?s history and so much of America?s best fiction beginning with Henry James.

Central to An American in Paris is the story of an American G.I., Jerry Mulligan (Kelly), who, following his service in Second World War, has come to Paris to paint. Jerry?s career is off to a rocky financial start. He lives alone in a tiny, one-room apartment, but he is able to make ends meet because he has a patroness?a rich, older woman, Milo Roberts (Nina Foch). The crisis in Jerry?s life comes when he falls in love with a young French dancer, Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron). He cannot keep his patroness, whose real interest is her relationship with Jerry, not Jerry?s art, if he wants to pursue Lise.

Comfort or love? Jerry takes very little time choosing love, and the film ends with a seventeen-minute ballet in which Kelly and Caron dance to the music of George Gershwin against Paris backdrops inspired by the painters Raoul Dufy, Maurice Utrillo, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Kelly?s ballet is whimsical rather than didactic, but there is no mistaking its historical point: for Jerry falling in love with Lise is inseparable from falling in love with Paris.

In Midnight in Paris a parallel set of circumstances surrounds Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter visiting Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams). In contrast to Inez, who looks forward to returning to the comforts of California as soon as their trip is over, Gil is restless. Screenwriting has left him dissatisfied. He cannot take his mind off the book he is writing about a man who owns a nostalgia shop.

The fictional hero of Gil?s book is very much like Gil, a man in love with the past, and soon Gil finds life imitating art. Walking alone one evening, Gil becomes a time traveler when, at the stroke of midnight, a vintage Peugeot Landaulet comes by and, like a fairy-tale coach, whisks him off to 1920s Paris. There he meets, among others, Gertrude Stein, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Ernest Hemingway. Gil?s time travel convinces him that he ought to pursue his book and break off his engagement with his fiancée, who disparages his desire to be a serious novelist every chance she gets.

Gil, a naturally shy man, works up the courage to break with Inez, but Midnight in Paris does not conclude with him sequestered in a garret. In his walks alone through daytime Paris, Gil has met Gabrielle (Lea Seydoux), who shares his love of Cole Porter. ?Let?s Do It (Let?s Fall in Love)? dominates the soundtrack of Midnight in Paris. At the conclusion of his final journey to the Parisian past, Gil encounters Gabrielle going home by herself after a late-night party, and the two, so similar in their reticence, strike up a conversation that seems destined to lead to romance.

Whether Gil has what it takes to make the transition from being a Hollywood screenwriter to a novelist is left up in the air, just as in An American in Paris we never find out if Jerry has the talent to become an important painter. But in neither movie is career success a critical issue. That concern, along with the traditional view of Paris as a city of sexual freedom (in contrast to Puritanical America), remains out of sight.

What matters is that Jerry and Gil have chosen lives of integrity as a result of their time abroad. Paris?with its beauty and history?has helped them find the courage to take risks they avoided in America.

Image: Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in An American in Paris; Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris