You need to watch the most nostalgic time-travel movie on Netflix before it leaves next week
“That’s what the present is. It's a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.”
Which movie directors come to mind first when you hear the phrase time travel? Christopher Nolan is a master of the science-fiction subgenre, while Robert Zemeckis practically invented it with Back to the Future. Terry Gilliam put his stamp on the concept with both 12 Monkeys and Time Bandits, and Stefon Bristol made time travel political in See You Yesterday. But there’s one name that probably doesn’t come to mind, even if he directed one of the best time-travel movies to date.
Woody Allen waded into the genre with his 2011 romantic comedy Midnight in Paris, and while it may be difficult to separate this controversial filmmaker from his work, it’s hard to deny the appeal of this particular movie. Midnight in Paris, which is streaming on Netflix now until June 30, offers a unique perspective on the topic by acknowledging one simple truth: nostalgia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Unlike so many of the movies listed above, in which the consequences of time travel are drastic and sometimes deadly, Midnight in Paris takes a more lighthearted approach. The movie stars Owen Wilson as a starry-eyed screenwriter on vacation in Paris with his ‘difficult’ fiancé (Rachel McAdams). At night, he walks the city alone and finds himself transported to the 1920s, where he meets his artistic idols and falls in love with a French woman played by Marion Cottilard.
It’s endlessly entertaining to watch talented modern actors take on the roles of iconic early 20th century artists. Kathy Bates was seemingly born to play Getrude Stein, Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill sparkle as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Adrian Brody is hilarious as Salvador Dali. Corey Stoll is also an unexpected delight as Earnest Hemingway, offering an unexpected twist on the famous writer.
“I had this body of work, which was a joy to plunge myself into,” Stoll told Inverse in a 2021 interview. “I had a couple of months and I just read book after book and all his short stories. I listened to one little speech of his and very quickly realized he did not sound as manly as he sounds when you're imagining him on the page, which was the whole point of the character was the sort of idealized version of Hemingway.”
Watching your favorite actors bring your favorite artists to life is one thing, but the true brilliance of Midnight in Paris lies in its twist. As Wilson’s character pursues Cotillard’s, he realizes that she’s just as nostalgic for an even earlier era of history as he is for the ‘20s. As the duo venture even further into the past, the audience realizes humanity’s collective nostalgia can never be satisfied — not even by physically traveling back in time.
“It’s a tricky thing,” Allen summarized for Interview Magazine, “because if you go back in time, the women were dying at childbirth and people had tuberculosis... I would like to be able to travel back for the day — go back to the Belle Époque at lunch, and then come home.”
Of course, it’s impossible to discuss any Woody Allen film without addressing the many allegations against the director. Allen’s shadow also looms over the filming in unsubtle ways, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of Rachel McAdams as a beautiful but dull woman unworthy of the protagonists loyalty.
For anyone who prefers not to support Allen and his work, there are plenty of superior time-travel movies to enjoy (though I can’t help but wonder why the subgenre seems to be quietly off-limits to female directors). And while most actors who choose to work with Allen decline to comment on those allegations — or deny them outright — Mario Cotillard actually did speak out against him (albeit after acting in one of his movies).
“The experience we had together was very odd.”
“I’m very ignorant of what he did or he didn’t do, I just see people suffering and it’s terrible,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “I have to say today, yeah, if he were to ask me again … I don’t think it would ever happen because the experience we had together was very odd. I admire some of his work, but we had no connection on set.”
And for those who continue to defend Allen, perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned in Midnight in Paris. Just like Owen Wilson yearning for another era in history, ignoring the truth of the present to enjoy Allen’s old movies might be tempting, but nostalgia will only get you so far in the end.
Midnight in Paris is streaming on Netflix until June 30.