| Dir: Woody Allen
“I’ve always had this pension for what I call kamikaze women. I call them kamikaze’s because they crash their plane, they’re self-destructive, but they crash it into you and you die along with them.”
What is the secret to a successful relationship? “Whatever works” suggests Sydney Pollack’s Jack at the end of Allen’s candid exploration of the marital disintegration of two upper class New York couples. Ever the pessimist, Allen’s suggested answer to the question to us (and himself) is to not expect too much out of life. The separation of Jack and Sally (Judy Davis) provides the catalyst for their close friends Gabe (Allen) and Judy (Farrow) to confront their own gradual failures, and Allen to examine why we sabotage our satisfaction in his most painfully truthful piece of work on the realities of the human condition. It’s his ode to Bergman’s Scene’s from a Marriage; an intimate eavesdrop into real people experiencing real emotions and living in real exchanges.
These couples, and all others, are different. They require different tactics to sustain them based on the individuals, the circumstances, the histories, the way we develop as humans during them. You have make it work in different ways, maybe as “a buffer against loneliness”. or you don’t. It’s a theme Allen would revisit in 2009 in the very literally titled Whatever Works. Ironically that film did not work and the messages are articulated much more astutely here. These explorations of the same question come in different forms, different genres but also different perspectives. At this time Allen was in the final stages of his own strained relationship with Mia Farrow, which perhaps explains the violent and volatile depictions of these profiles than the comparative pleasantries of similar New Yorkers in Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters or Another Woman. In fact, Mia found the famous erotic polaroids of her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn in Allen’s apartment in the final days of principal photography, so re-shoots and editing were done during the tumultuous breakup. Thus it’s not surprising to see the film and their relationship on screen reflect the turmoil off it. TriStar capitalised on the media fervor to record Allen’s biggest ever opening weekend of $3.5 million.
Despite it supposedly being written two years prior to filming, there’s still all the unmistakable and uncoincidental resemblances to real life details clouded by a subjective lens. Farrow’s performance is heightened because of the raw personal circumstances surrounding it and the close proximity of the on screen fiction to the real life fact. The unforgettable scene with Allen and Farrow towards the end was actually re-shot after their split. “It’s over and we both know it” she says to Gabe, or Allen, such is the difficulty separating life and art. “Art doesn’t imitate life, it imitates bad television” after all. Farrow took days of convincing to return by producer Robert Greenhut and knowing these circumstances as a viewer darkly enhances the scene.
Her archetypal performance in the 12 Allen films she starred in didn’t vary much outside of the more comical Broadway Danny Rose and Radio Days – tender, mellow, mousey and affecting. Here she again lives within these characteristics but brings an enjoyable fierce quality. She provided Allen, and us, with some lovely performances over 12 years; the wild caricature Tina in Broadway Danny Rose, the eternal optimist Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo, the heartfelt titular Alice, the traumatized recluse Lane in September and her troubled Judy here are standouts. It’s remarkable that she was so consistently great as his muse yet so consistently snubbed by the Oscars to not receive a single nomination from such a strong catalogue of work.
Farrow cannot claim all the on screen plaudits in her final foray with Allen, however. Judy Davis is extraordinary with such compelling passion, ferocity and frustration. It’s easy to play these actions in their obvious manner, but how sincere she is with them in Allen’s magnificent situational writing (such as arguing over the phone with her ex on a first date, in his apartment, over multiple phone calls while suggesting they should “cut his fucking balls off!”) brings such a blackly comic quality. She’s dynamite here and was dutifully nominated for the Academy Award. A young Juliette Lewis is equally outstanding as the manipulative seductress Rain. She and Allen slowly develop a connection beyond their teacher-student relationship as Rain becomes an artistic confidant that Judy cannot be for him. The scene in the cab where they discuss the draft of his new novel is utterly breathtaking cinema. The psychological examination it gives us of both people in this social minefield is gripping, enhanced by how Allen is kept off screen entirely as we focus exclusively on Rain as she progressively reveals her true feelings about his artistic treatment of women and him as as a writer.
Allen’s most affecting moment as a performer comes in Broadway Danny Rose, but it’s a rare and welcome sight to see him play such intimate and complex choices – and do them so skillfully. Another wonderful exchange with Rain, as she finally makes a tipsy move on him at her 21st birthday party in her kitchen, is his finest work in front of the camera. It subverts expectations from Allen in both performance and writing, as he rejects her approach and does so in such a genuine and sweet manner. It’s surprising from a man who for once isn’t “using sex to express every emotion except love”, despite how equally manipulative he could be at this point. In fact, this developing relationship with the teenager and younger women in general is selfishly expressed as “some kind of symbol of lost youth or faded dreams”, which brings profound shades with the revelations that came out with teenager Soon-Yi.
While the mockumentary Zelig was a painstakingly detailed two year process to complete, this has an air of effortlessness and stripped back simplicity to it. Allen focused purely on the content and the action rather than the prettiness of the craft around it, cleverly framing the action within the context of a raw documentary. He wasn’t “tied into conversation tonal shooting…I cut when I wanted to cut (often mid sentence and at the emotional peak of arguments) and stuck on anything I wanted. I didn’t care about the niceties of it…I wanted to make a picture with no relation to beauty or any rules”. The jagged, dissonant and disturbed editing style actually compliments the psyches of the characters. Despite this purposely rough camera work, cinematographer Carlo di Palma has clearly choreographed and orchestrated things superbly with some stellar lengthy one take scenes. It was cheaper and faster to shoot than any of his previous films – I’d argue that it’s better than them all too.
Simply, this is Allen’s most human and pulsating work. There’s life in every syllable spoken and withheld. Dark humour, tragedy and thrills combine with a frightening level of familiarity to the past and present thoughts, actions and dilemmas that we dare not bring to our conscious. These characters have longings, impulses, compulsions, fantasies and daydreams that we hide behind in our daily outward personas. That it is styled and structured as a documentary explains things literally, but it also gives Allen some leverage to play into these conceits and explore unfamiliar worlds sides to the kind of people who populate his work. And how hilarious it is too – “Dostoevsky is a full meal with a vitamin pill and extra wheat germ”, “Was the notion of ever-deepening romance a myth we had grown up on, along with simultaneous orgasm? The only time Rifkin and his wife experienced the simultaneous orgasm was when the judge handed them their divorce”. It’s brilliantly romantic, heartbreaking, visceral, bitter, unsympathetic and truly one of my favourite films.
Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.