written and directed by Woody Allen
The new film from Woody Allen is his best, most focused effort in years, a return to subjects that have inspired and engaged him throughout his career. It is a thought-provoking exploration of basic human questions that ranks it in the category of "film-as-literature" as opposed to "film-as-entertainment."
This is not one of Allen's "comic" films. On the contrary, an early, self-mocking reference to Dostoyevsky (repeated several times throughout the film) foreshadows and underlines the serious themes Allen means to address - themes most familiar from Crime and Punishment. In spite of the fact that Allen pokes fun at his own pretensions, he is serious in his intent.
The story follows the career of Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a good-looking, twenty-something Irishman with enough talent and drive to make the professional tennis tour, but not enough to excel there. He has recognized (created?) his limitations and is aiming to settle down. He finds employment as a tennis pro at a prestigious London club.
One of his first pupils is Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), scion of a wealthy and successful "old family," complete with a father "in business" and a Stately Home in The Country. Partly on the basis of Chris' elevated tastes - he's a working-class Irish Lad who happens to love opera - two quickly become friends. Tom introduces Chris into his family circle, where his younger sister Chlöe (Emily Mortimer) is immediately drawn to him and their doting parents - the "hale-fellow-well-met " Alec (Brian Cox) and the cruel and snobbish Elanor (Penelope Wilton) - find it "broad-minded" and modern to patronize him for their children's sake.
On the basis of his friendship with Tom, and Chlöe's attraction, Chris becomes a guest at the family home, where he runs into Nola (Scarlett Johansson), an aspiring American actress who is also Tom's fiancée. The two have a brief flirtation - before Chris understands her position in the family - which reveals an immediate mutual attraction.
Circumstances - and other people's invitations and expectations - draw Chris along. He becomes intimate with Chlöe and the two develop a relationship. At a weekend in The Country with Chlöe, Tom and Nola, Chris is overcome by his attraction for Nola and they have a clandestine sexual encounter.
Time passes. Chris and Chlöe marry, while Tom and Nola split up. Chris - still secretly harboring a fascination for Nola - seeks her out, but she has disappeared. He settles into the comfort of luxurious surroundings and an interesting and well-paid job - both furnished by Chlöe's family. Then, Nola reappears when Chris spots her at the Tate Modern Gallery. He manages to speak with her and gets her phone number. At his insistence, they renew their connection and begin an intense affair that puts them both at risk.
There is much more. The real substance of the film lies in the choices the characters make in response to the circumstances - at least partly of their own making - t hat unfold around them. No one here is "innocent." And while the degrees of responsibility - not to say guilt - for what occurs may vary, Allen makes the Dostoyevskian point that we can never know the consequences of our actions - for good or otherwise; when we think we are doing good we may be causing harm, and vise-versa.
The film starts with a shot of a tennis volley, interrupted with a stop-motion shot of a ball bouncing off the tape, at the height of its arc before beginning its descent, with a narration from Rhys-Meyers that declares that "The man who said 'I'd rather be lucky than good' saw deeply into life." It is about this premise that the film turns, although by the end the definition of what "lucky" means has been turned inside out in several directions.
The question of morality sits at the center of the puzzle. All the major characters are deeply self-absorbed and show a nearly sociopathic lack of empathy for those around them. Without feeling for their fellow-creatures and without a religious or philosophical framework, these thoroughly modern folks are unable to distinguish between the moral high-ground and the slough of despond.
Allen is examining here - as he did so effectively in one of his finest films, Crimes and Misdemeanors - a twenty-first century twist on the story of Job - not the story of the righteous man who is afflicted, but that of the unrighteous man who is rewarded - the man who is lucky without being good. In a universe without a God - and Allen is an avowed atheist - how do we understand and come to terms with the apparent success of evil? In light of the cruel venality of human beings how is it possible to view them - ourselves - with compassionate detachment?
These are difficult questions, fraught with unpleasant and painful insights, including one from a character who quotes Sophocles to the effect that "Not to be born is, past all prizing, best." Allen draws us into this moral limbo, and then more or less abandons us, to find our way out on our own. Only in the last frames does he suggest that the question of crime and punishment may be most deeply addressed in the modern world by Oscar Wilde's insight that, "There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."
This is a film that is more committed to the bleak and distressing (but perhaps also liberating) truth than to comforting banalities. Although it pursues a course that sometimes resembles very dark "social satire," á la Evelyn Waugh, at others an almost Hitchcockian "thriller" and at still others a "character study," taken as a whole it is deeply resonant with the profound themes Allen has studied - in comedy and drama - throughout his career. That Allen finds more questions than answers in his exploration, while it may be unsettling, embraces a fearless honesty that makes the film provocative and memorable.
Allen's reputation as "an actor's director" is fully justified here. He gets first-rate performances out of his entire cast. Rhys-Meyers plays Chris with a kind of sociopathic charm that is initially disarming, but eventually chilling. He captures the confusion and desperation of a man overwhelmed by his own inner and outer life, his own impulses and the relationships he creates, with a cool economy that reflects his lack of moral or volitional direction, his lack of passion.
Scarlett Johansson projects a cynical, self-exploitative sexuality that is manipulative and lustful - an expression of greed and acquisitiveness rather than feeling. The predicament in which she finds herself is no less painful because it is of her own making. Yet her wounds are so patently self-inflicted that it is difficult to sympathize with her. But on another level her childish imitation of "relationship" is heartbreaking in the neediness it reveals - a longing of which she is barely conscious.
Matthew Goode and Emily Mortimer play two halves of a single character - smug, self-absorbed children of privilege who skim the surface of life never dipping down below the level of appearances. Only over time are the cruel consequences of their careless unconcern, their lack of real connection with those around them, developed - and by then the damage is already done. Both create a convincing sense of the self-induced state of denial they have to maintain to uphold the life-view they have been bred for and then chosen.
Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton reiterate this complacent ignorance of the "entitled class" - the kind of Godless neo-Calvinists for whom their wealth and social standing is all the proof they need of their superiority and right to privilege. Alec's demeaning, emasculating "generosity" - which actually costs him nothing - and Eleanor's manipulative psychological gamesmanship outline an apt background for the spoiled, selfish parasites their children have become.
It's not easy emotionally or technically for actors to play characters who - while not actively "villainous" - have almost nothing about them the is likeable, and its a tribute to their trust in Allen as director and screenwriter that the cast undertook, so effectively, to create such deeply unattractive portrayals.
Allen has made thirty-five films in the last thirty-nine years. Along the way he has collected and developed an ensemble of crew members whose talents keep the production values of his films at a very high level, even on his very limited (by Hollywood standards) budgets. The sets and settings are accurate and appropriate, from the Hewett's sprawling "old pile" of a Country House to Chris and Chlöe's luxury flat, to Nola's cramped apartment.
The camerawork, as always in Allen's films, is pragmatic and appropriate to the material. He used elaborate production shots for the musical send-up Everybody Says I Love You, exquisitely-composed, static Bergmanesque frames for Interiors, and dizzying, hand-held shots for the frenetic comedy Sleeper. Here he and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin work a vocabulary of shots that combine Hitchcock and Merchant/Ivory to propel the story forward with energy and to reflect its emotional tone.
Much of the music is period recordings of opera, many sung by Enrico Caruso. They act as a sardonic comment on the "tragedy" of the story, the embarrassingly banal and sordid nature of the real events that might make great melodrama on stage - the "entertainment value" of human suffering.
This music underscores the fact that Allen refuses to sentimentalize or soften his characters. While it is a challenging choice, it perhaps undermines his purpose slightly in providing viewers with almost no relief from the relentlessly barren aspect of humanity they represent. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, he provided us with an alternative to Judah Rosenthal's (Martin Landau) ruthless egotism in the resilient, unjustified, but existentially-defiant hopefulness and vulnerability of Cliff Stern - played by Allen himself.
This more mature work contemplates the same dangerous and "Godless" universe, where there is no punishment for evil but one's own consciousness- and that may be no punishment at all. Allen - in the late decades of his own life - takes a clear, hard look into the void. What he reflects is neither comforting or reassuring - but his courage in daring to look and his honesty in sharing what he sees may be in itself - by the logic of Hannah Arendt's remarkable essay "He Whom We Must Love Is Absent" - the most hopeful of actions.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z