Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide / No escape from reality / Open your eyes / Look up to the skies / And see.
—“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
A few summers ago I was in Guatemala with my sister, staying with an older married couple near the Pacific coast. Over lunch one day they asked me what traits I desired in a future spouse. They asked about height, hair color, personality, etc. and I told them what I liked. That’s all great, said Alvira, the wife and homemaker, “But remember, don’t look for the ideal girl; look for the real girl.”
This dichotomy of ideal versus real stuck with me. We all have things in our lives we wish were real but are actually illusions. Think about your favorite movies, books, or TV shows. Don’t you wish you could live in those worlds? You can, for a time, but eventually the story ends and the illusion fades away.
But what if we tried to hold on to these ideals, these stories we tell ourselves, because they’re beautiful or inspiring, even though they’re ultimately temporal? This is a question both Gil from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) and Richard from Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (2009) struggle with in their encounters with the ephemeral.
Neither Richard nor Gil are satisfied. Gil (Owen Wilson) is a self-described “hack” Hollywood screenwriter who vacations in Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. A neurotic and a romantic, he’s stuck between his obligations to the lifestyle Inez wishes to keep up and his newly kindled desire to finish his long-dormant passion project – a novel about a man who works in a nostalgia shop specializing in memorabilia from 1920s Paris.
Here, as they say, comes the turn. In a twist of fate, Gil arrives at a bar, circa 1928, filled with rowdy patrons resplendent in classic Twenties dress. He bumps into a Zelda Fitzgerald and her husband Scott. Cole Porter croons from the piano. He later meets a broody writer named Ernest Hemingway, who after learning Gil is a writer, offers to give his manuscript to Gertrude Stein. For some reason, he’s come face to face with all of his literary idols.
Meanwhile, in late-1930s New York, Richard (Zac Efron), a bored high-school student, meets by chance the famous theater wunderkind Orson Welles. Welles needs a ukulele player for his oft-delayed production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theater and finds Richard suitable for the show, which is supposed to open in days.
Like Gil, Richard soon finds himself in another world, performing beside the larger-than-life and mercurial Orson Welles, who runs rehearsals pell-mell yet commands great respect from his colleagues in spite of his massive ego. Richard grows close to Sonja (Claire Danes), Welles’ hard-to-get secretary, and soon considers her his lover. For Richard this is the ideal life: performing on stage far away from his boring family and school.
Gil, too, grows close to a woman in his otherworld. Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful fashion designer, shares his romanticism and validates Gil’s desires more than Inez ever did. He falls hard for Adriana just as he falls further away from Inez.
But sooner or later, the illusion evaporates. Sonja, ambitious above all else, sleeps with Welles the night before the opening. Too jealous for his own good, Richard castigates the thin-skinned Welles, who in turn fires Richard. They make nice before the show and perform it splendidly, but Richard later learns Orson “just wanted his opening,” so Richard’s out for good.
Gil has a different kind of clash. Adriana doesn’t share his love of the 1920s because it’s her present. “It’s dull,” she says. She much prefers La Belle Époque, Paris’ Victorian era of the 1890s. This triggers Gil’s light-bulb moment: everyone thinks the past era was better than his or her present. Another character in Midnight in Paris calls it “Golden Age thinking.”
So whether out of naiveté or misplaced optimism, they finally awake from their dreams. Yet even in their dreams, both men had brushes with reality. For Richard, it was Greta, a girl he meet-cutes in a music store. For Gil, it was Gabrielle, a flea market vendor selling Cole Porter LPs. They talk briefly each time about music and art, but the thing about these women compared to the ones in their fantasies is that they’re real. Gabrielle isn’t the stunner of Gil’s dreams like Adriana was; she’s flesh and blood. She may not inspire great works of art with her beauty, but she loves walking in the rain just like Gil does. Greta doesn’t work in a grandiose theater production like Sonja; she’s a struggling writer who connects with Richard away from the spotlight.
Gil and Richard never had a chance at their dream women because they didn’t actually exist. They may have been real for a time, but only for a time. That’s the problem with illusions; they don’t last forever. A connection with real life – with Gabrielle and with Greta – made them realize that.
The ideal is temporary, but fools you into thinking you can have it all and keep it that way. The real, conversely, is tangible, yet can fool you into thinking life is dull because it isn’t always enchanting. We find fulfillment in the ideal because it lets us escape from an undesirable present. But Gil realizes eventually that “the present is a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying.” No illusion will ever change that.
This isn’t a depressing thought. In fact, it can set you free. To paraphrase the wise old thief from The Italian Job, you can either let the illusion enhance your life or define it. Don’t let it be the latter.
So we need not shatter our illusions completely. At their best, illusions are simply stories that can inspire, inform, and reveal beauty to us in many ways. When we let these stories enhance our lives rather than define them, real, amazing things can happen.
At the end of Welles, Richard, a little blue after losing his dream job, the illusion shattered, meets Greta at the museum again. Her short story is being published, and Richard is finally clear-eyed about his life.
“It’s an exciting time,” Greta says, “because it feels like…”
“Like it’s all ahead of us,” says Richard.
This is the real life.