Love And Death

Dir: Woody Allen, 1975. Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, James Tolkan, Harold Gould. Comedy.
Love And Death

I’m not enough of an expert in Russian literature to give Woody Allen’s Love And Death it’s full due, intellectually. I do know there's some Crime And Punishment, some Brothers Karamazov, some War And Peace, and some Chekhov being spoofed. Visually there are references to Allen’s Swedish idol, Ingmar Bergman, with The Seventh Seal and Persona, and as well as some Charlie Chaplin. Allen also borrows healthily from his wisecracking forbearers, The Marx Brothers and Bob Hope.

If Woody Allen’s directing career can be broken into three sections - his early slapstick comedies, his middle important films, and his later mostly forgettable busts that he’s been marred in for almost the last 20 years - then Love And Death marks the end of that first period. It would be his final "straight comedy" before making his evolutionary leap with his next film, the masterpiece Annie Hall. Love And Death ended his six-year period of comic experimentation following the hit and miss joke epics Take The Money And Run, Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, and Sleeper. Hard to believe at one time a film critic argued who was the more important comic filmmaker: Allen or Mel Brooks (after making the classics Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein)? Allen went on to do Annie Hall and Manhattan and about a ten more relevant films while Brooks did Dracula: Dead And Loving It. Woody was always growing, while Brooks peaked early. That is not to say Love And Death is only important as a growth record. It’s also a great comedy on its own merits. It’s beautifully shot in Hungary by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (Au hasard Balthazar, Tess, etc.). Also it’s been cleverly scored with the music of 20th century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (later The Ren & Stimpy Show would use his music as well).

Like Allen’s Latin American revolution comedy, Bananas, a lot of the fun is putting Woody in an absurd situation and letting him be Bob Hope. During the Napoleonic era, Allen, sporting his trademark horn rimmed black glasses, plays Boris Grushenko, a Russian coward ("Yes, but I'm a militant coward"). As his two virile brothers enlist in the military, Boris is too busy fretting about life and trying to get laid. The object of Boris's lust is his independent cousin, Sonja (Diane Keaton), however she is engaged to the herring merchant. Eventually Boris enlists in the army, becomes a hero, and then he and Sonja set out to assassinate Napoleon (played wonderfully by James Tolkan).

The plot is, of course, secondary; it's just an opportunity for Woody to riff on the time period or to deconstruct it (like having a black drill instructor at an army training camp). Woody also gets to play a Christian, which gives him an opportunity to make fun of his Jewishness at his own expense ("I hear their woman don’t believe in sex after marriage"), though Woody does not save all the jokes for himself. For the first time in Allen's young career, the female lead is given a sizable chunk of the laughs, not just the set-ups, and Keaton takes full advantage.

A good bit is when Napoleon almost catches her with Boris. He says, "I heard you speaking to someone." She says, "Oh, I was praying." Napoleon declares, "I heard two voices." She responds, "Well, I do both parts."

But the best moments are the light banter between Allen and Keaton, just talking philosophy. This may have been a warm up for their classic chemistry that would follow in Annie Hall. But it also showed the skill Allen would display for decades - writing great roles for actresses, a skill that has eluded many of his peers.

These were the days when Allen knew how to nail a joke, both in writing and execution. All of Allen’s films from this period have tons of quotable lines. For instance, in Love And Death when The Countess Alexandrovna declares, "You are a great lover!" Boris says, "Thanks. I practice a lot when I'm alone."

Or when talking about the dead killed in combat a soldier says, "He was from my village. He was the village idiot." Boris responds, "Yeah? What did you do, place?"

And later he tells the soldier, "I went to a brothel once. I got hiccups you know, it was over like that."

Love And Death is interesting in Woody Allen’s career both as a stepping stone film and as a really smart physical and verbal comedy. For someone so funny, you can always sense the melancholy (obviously, I suppose, since his characters are always terrified of leaving their personal comfort zones). Love And Death ends with a funny joke (Death taking him away), but again, like in Annie Hall and Manhattan to follow, he doesn’t get the girl he loves. Not many comedians had, or have had, the guts to break the comedy rule of giving the audience what they want to see or expect to see, certainly not Mel Brooks, even when he was at his best. This proves that even Woody Allen’s straight comedies in the 1970s were groundbreaking and have rarely been matched by anyone since.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 10, 2010 5:14pm
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