Magic in the Moonlight

Emma Stone and Colin Firth


Suspension of disbelief is the term – first thought up by Socrates and further developed by later philosophers – to describe the phenomenon where an audience on being told a story through one medium or another (eg storytelling around a fire, theatre, film) puts aside their usual sense of reality to believe in a fiction.  Fantasy becomes reality, the impossible becomes believable.

Humans seem to come hard wired with this facility, and it is amazing how quickly and easily we fall into this hypnotic trance. From the moment the first images fall on the screen at a movie, we become engrossed. If this experience isn’t maintained, the film fails. A film, like all storytelling, is a psychological realm, reflecting and evolving each viewer’s inner space.

The 1920s in which Magic in the Moonlight is set, is a relatively rare period for modern films to be set in. Generally speaking, our sense of relevant history only seems to go as far back as the 1930s. We have a simplistic notion of the “roaring twenties” – sharemarket speculation, jazz, flappers. I’ve only recently discovered what a fascinating decade the 1920s  actually were, in popular culture especially representing the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.

It seems Woody Allen is well acquainted and intrigued by the era as well. He places his characters squarely in one of its romantic epicentres, the French Riviera, and unapologetically indulges in a picture postcard re-imagination of it – beautiful cars, stunning scenery fashionable men and women, hot jazz. He further captures its spirit through a story line and style of film making that, although more sophisticated, is reminiscent of movies made at the time.

As its title suggests, there is almost a corny romanticism to Magic in the Moonlight, but Allen doesn’t mock the era or undermine it with our modern day predilection for cynicism. He still has faith in the notion of finding true love. But depth is needed to make such a story line satisfying to a 21st century audience and this is where Allen, playing with notions of love and magic, adds substance and humour.

The film starts in a theatre where a “Chinese” magician makes an elephant disappear. I marvel at how Allen creates such a marvellous and convincing shot of a spellbound audience of the era. From there the story unfolds in the south of France. This enchanting realm becomes the landscape within which a worldly cynic and ingénue battle over each other’s perception of reality. Both see something in their opposite that is attractive but neither is fully able to escape their own sense reality.

And here lies one of the ironies of the film in – the suspension of disbelief. I (and I assume the rest of the small audience at my screening) find it much easier to take the side of the waif with supposedly psychic powers than the intelligent sophisticate, who is rational, but fearful and wounded by his own cynicism. It’s the same effect, although on a less grand scale, to what takes place in the mind of the audience in Scifi and horror films, where we identify with the protagonist who believes in aliens or monster, not the other characters who don’t.

Out on the street, neither would we. But for some reason we put aside all our usual sense of what is normal to one side for an hour or two. Out in the “real world” it is impossible for reality and imagination to co-exist. One assumes dominion at the expense of the other. Usually the real world wins out, and yet imagination is essential for existence as well.

Magic in the Moonlight argues both for and against the existence of magic. But it points out that humans can’t live without it, or at least a belief in it – this sustains us or at least helps us to survive without going mad. A lot rides on the outcome of the romance in Magic in the Moonlight.