Out of all of Woody Allen’s films, none quite exemplifies what was great about him as well as Love & Death. The film is a sophisticated cocktail of sharp verbal humour, lowbrow slapstick, grand philosophy and vulgar sexuality. Just make sure you’re up to date on your 19th century Russian literature.
The movie is hard to place in the Woody canon. It is commonly accepted that Annie Hall is the first of his ‘serious’ movies, despite its penchant for irreverently disobeying the rules of cinema through breaking the forth wall, cartoonish cutaway jokes and an animated sequence in the middle. But though Love & Death is equally keen to experiment with the comic possibilities of cinema, both its themes and execution are much more mature compared to the likes of his ‘early, funny’ comedies such as Bananas and Sleeper. It has the energy of his screwier films, but it tackles two very serious matters: you guessed it, ‘love’ and ‘death’. Love & Death has a Pythonesque knack for juxtaposing serious ideas with a light comic silliness; in a movie that ruminates on the existence of God and the normative ethics of murder, there are still plenty of masturbation jokes to enjoy. The best example of this apposition is the running joke between Sonya and Boris of the ethical choices they have to make throughout the movie:
- Boris: Perception is irrational. It implies immanence.
- Sonja: But judgment of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstracted empirical concept such as being or to be or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself.
- Boris: Yeah, I’ve said that many times.
I’ve always respected Woody Allen’s lack of concern about whether his audience will ‘get’ a reference or not. The movie is both inspired by and satirises some complex and obscure source material such as classic Russian novels and European arthouse cinema, but Allen translates this into an engaging and accessible comedy for people who may not have read the entire output of Dostoyevsky. Its portrayal of 19th century Russian society, or rather, the portrayal of 19th century Russian society in novels, is hilarious, and reveals Allen’s familiarity with and fondness for the classics. There is a host of eccentric minor characters, such as Young Nehamkin, who is somehow older than Old Nehamkin, and Boris’s father, who owns a plot of land, and carries it about everywhere with him. Woody and Diane Keaton play off each other brilliantly, and both share some of the funniest dialogue in the movie. Keaton is given a lot more to do compared to earlier Allen movies, as Sonja is a much more funny and developed character as opposed to her earlier comic foil roles. Allen himself is often the foil here. He is playing the same fretful nebbish character he plays in all of his movies, but here he’s much more likeable, displaying a sweetness and a drive to do the right thing.
However, the most important consideration of a movie like this is whether or not is funny. Thankfully it is, but Love & Death is more than just a movie with funny jokes. It demonstrates a perfect balance of the styles of one of the most creative and original voices in comedy.
Dir: Woody Allen
Scr: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton
Prd: Charles H. Joffe
DOP: Ghislain Cloquet
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Run Time: 85 Minutes
Love & Death will get its UK Blu-ray release on October 3rd, 2016.