| Dir: Woody Allen
“I thought we should divide his letters. Do you want the vowels or the consonants?”
In the final moments of Sleeper, there is what would seem to be intended foreshadowing to Love and Death; two subjects that Allen doesn’t merely have a fascination with, but an infatuation with exploring through his art:
“What do you believe in?”
“Sex and death, two things that come once in a lifetime. But at least after sex you’re not nauseous.”
But this was not intentional. Woody actually wrote a draft of what would largely become Annie Hall and Manhattan Murder Mystery, but was dissatisfied with it. Instead, he cherry picked aspects of that draft and wrote a Russian literature parody in the comic vein of War and Peace.
Love and death are staples of his identity, combining many times but never so cogently as with Love and Death. Death and the meaningless of existence encompass Allen’s work. Even up to this explicit exploration of it, we have had Sleeper (Miles hunted for being an alien), Bananas (blood soaked political revolution), Play It Again, Sam (the pointlessness of going on after divorce) and the murder laden What’s Up, Tiger Lily?. And we haven’t even got to the likes of Crime and Misdemeanors, Match Point or Irrational Man yet. But love – or the sexualisation of love to be more accurate – is Allen’s hallmark. Insightful remarks such as “Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed?” are espoused from the same man who forces his love interest to plead “Can we not talk about sex so much?” It’s something we have to ask as viewers , and something I’m sure Keaton herself has had to say verbatim many times in private.
Love and Death, shot in France and Hungary, is similar in narrative structure to Sleeper, and somewhat to Bananas: a cowardly and nebbish Boris Grushenko (Allen) inadvertently pursues a life of war to win the love of a woman; bumbling slapstick comedy forms many of the war scenes; the lovers join forces to defeat the tyrannical dictator; the odds are overcome in outlandishly bumbling fashion; and inevitably the love of the girl is won (here, sort of). This functions as something of a comedic cine-essay through the medium of Russian literature; not only on existentialism, but also on how to woo a woman. It’s very funny at communicating both through homages, drawing heavily from the Marx Brothers and Bob Hope.
There’s a notable evolution in Allen’s writing from those early pure slapstick comedies. Now he had a stimulus in Diane Keaton; a terrific comedic actress with confidence and charm. He’d written roles for women before, including his former wife Louise Lasser, but now he had confidence in writing roles for the actress. She is the catalyst for him developing the reputation for writing some of the richest, rewarding and fully formed female characters in cinema history. Here he actually focused half the narrative on Keaton’s story arc, shifting away from producing work to merely showcase himself as a comedian and instead share the responsibility of carrying the comedy. And she is more than successful.
In the final moments of the film, Keaton and Jessica Harper are shot in blatant Bergman close up framing. This (and the character of Death from Persona) would be a precursor not to Allen’s following film, but his 1978 Ingmar Bergman tribute Interiors. As for his next effort, the precursor would be the monologue that concludes Love and Death which is delivered straight to the camera and almost confronts the audience. Like Bergman’s heralded cinematography, this one shot would come to signify the career of Woody Allen to most who know his work. That and the opening of Manhattan. But we’ll get there shortly.
Part of Woody Wednesday. Second viewing.