Sunday, August 25, 2013
LOVE AND DEATH
(June 1975, U.S.)
This never occurred to me until just right now, but Woody Allen's LOVE AND DEATH was released in movie theaters just a mere ten days before Steven Spielberg's blockbuster film of JAWS. Almost makes you wonder if perhaps Allen's funniest film of all time might have fared better at the box office had the great white shark not blown him out of the water. Who knows.
You noticed that I've immediately called LOVE AND DEATH Woody Allen's funniest film of all time. I stand by that remark. Does that make it my favorite Woody Allen film of all time? Not necessarily. That honor I continue to give to ANNIE HALL (1977). To consider Allen's best film, though, probably depends on which era and period of his film making career you're considering. For me, ANNIE HALL embodies all elements of Allen's wit, his cynicism, his neurosis, his paranoia and his downright insanity. LOVE AND DEATH simply embodies the outrageous insanity that was Allen's true funny period alongside other comic film genius such as Mel Brooks and Groucho Marx. Following previous hits such as BANANAS (1971) and SLEEPER (1973), this film is a comical satire on Russian literature starring Allen and Diane Keaton (his greatest co-star ever, in my opinion) as Boris and Sonja, respectively, Russians living during the Napoleonic Era who engage in mock-serious philosophical debates. When Napoleon Bonaparte invades Austria during the Napoleonic Wars, Boris Grushenko (Allen), a coward and pacifist scholar, is forced to enlist in the Russian Army. Desperate and disappointed after hearing the news that his cousin Sonja (Keaton) is to wed a herring merchant, he inadvertently and rather accidentally becomes a war hero. He returns and marries the recently-widowed Sonja, who doesn't want to marry him, but promises him that she will when she thinks that he is about to be killed in a duel to the death. Their marriage is filled with philosophical debates, and no money. Their life together is interrupted when Napoleon invades the Russian Empire. Boris wants to flee but his rather narcissistic wife, angered that the invasion will interfere with their plans to finally start a family, conceives a plot to assassinate Napoleon at his headquarters in Moscow. Boris and Sonja debate the matter (as usual) with some degree of bullshit philosophical double-talk, and Boris reluctantly goes along with it. In an outrageous slapstick manner than only the nervous action of a young Woody Allen can deliver, they ultimately fail to kill Napoleon and Sonja escapes arrest while Boris is executed, despite being told by a vision that he will be pardoned. In other words, he gets screwed!
Much of Allen's humor in LOVE AND DEATH is straightforward; other jokes rely on the filmgoer's awareness of classic literature or contemporary European cinema. For example, the final shot of Keaton is a reference to Ingmar Bergman's film PERSONA (a 1966 film I haven't actually seen yet). The sequence with the stone lions is a parody of Sergei Eisenstein's silent film BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925), while the Russian battle against Napoleon's army heavily parodies the same film's "Odessa steps" sequence. Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) is parodied during the climax when Boris meets "Death" upon his execution. And if you're a fan of David Lean's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965), you're likely to see parodied elements of that, as well. Ultimately, it's all parody and for the Woody Allen film who simply loves a great laugh, it's all good! Hell, it's all great! It even temporarily cheered me up while I was watching it during a time I was real pissed off about something. You see? The power of laughter!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Boris Grushenko: "And he that hath clean hands and a pure heart is okay in my book! But he that, that fools around with, with barnyard animals has gotta be watched! Thank you."