Till Rebirth Do Us Part – Harry Ledgerwood

When reading through Stanley Cavell’s chapter Introduction: Words for a Conversation I thought about which modern films would fit nicely into his description of a ‘comedy of remarriage’; however, I ended up thinking about Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and its ambivalence within the genre – an ambivalence that may place it as an anti-comedy of remarriage. In many ways the film could be placed neatly into the genre; it has a troubled couple; it is a comedy; it takes place in a setting of “unmistakable wealth”[1]; the couple in question are “neither young nor old, experienced yet still hopeful”[2]; and it has a rebirth. There are two key differences, however, which complicate our understanding of this film as a comedy of remarriage: the male protagonist and the fact that the couple do not get back together. Although the lack of these two features may appear to rule out the film from being a comedy of remarriage – falling more into being a film that “[negates] a clause of the myth of the genre of remarriage”[3] and is perhaps “adjacent to the structure of the genre of remarriage”[4] – there are the aforementioned other elements which fit into the genre, and Cavell himself understands the difficulty in defining what is and isn’t a comedy of remarriage.

One of the features of the genre which stood out to me was the “undertaking to show how the miracle of change may be brought about”[5] and it is this miracle of change that allows a rebirth within the protagonist. In this instance the miracle is that of unexplained time travel. Each night at midnight, Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender is transported back to Paris in the 1920s where his literary and artistic heroes of the Lost Generation run wild. Gil is in an unhappy marriage, yet the structure of the film is not one where the couple is separated and then, following a change, brought together; instead, the structure is one where the couple is unhappy but still together until a major change – being Gil’s time-travel triggered rebirth – separates them at the end. With Gil’s rebirth being the instigator for the failing of the relationship, rather than the act that saves it, we can see Allen’s modern-day scepticism about marriage. Allen uses the wisdom and characters of the past to influence Gil’s relationship in the 21st century, he understands that remarriage may not always be the best option. In the clip linked, we can see the moment when the film comes to its climax and Gil experiences his rebirth, with his experiences in the 1920s helping him realise his own worth and the advice of Hemingway prompting him to question his fiancé, and it is this that leads to their breakup.

The comedies of remarriage as discussed by Cavell were fuelled by the feminist concerns of the time. Allen’s film, on the other hand, both incorporates and subverts key features of the genre – in-turn creating an anti-comedy of remarriage – to criticise the institution of marriage in the modern day.

Clip – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bULqcvRt4OE

Stanley Cavell, “Introduction: Words for a Conversation” and “Pros and Cons,” Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1981), 1-42.

[1] p5

[2] p18

[3] p34

[4] p33

[5] p23

2 comments

  1. I think this is a good way to demonstrate the differences in censorship and socio-cultural thought during different periods of film history. The Hays Code during the period Cavell discusses did not allow for images of infidelity onscreen whereas Allen had no such problems of enforced censorship. Freedom creates a space for his trademark cynicality.

  2. I think this is a good example of how contemporary cinema tends to lean towards ideas of the meta-narrative. Gil’s character seems to directly confront the presupposed idea of the remarriage, and it causes a direct conflict for his character in the film. This allows Allen to toy with the genre in new and more complex ways than the films of remarriage that have come before.

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