Love And Death marks the end of Woody Allen’s ‘early, funny’ period. Although not as openly mad and frenetic as Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex…, it sees Allen flirting with influences beyond his stand up and TV persona. It’s one of his funniest films, but it also hints at something a lot bigger.
Woody Allen stars as Boris Grushenko, a Russian coward in the time of war with Napoleon. He is in love with his cousin, Sonja (played by Diane Keaton), and he explores the meaning of life and existence over years of adventure, much like a long Russian novel.
It is not just a parody of Russian novels. Allen plays on his love of world cinema. Most notably in the appearance of Death, much like in the ‘Seventh Seal‘. The big ideas on life and existence explored in Swedish films are lovingly poked. Characters, especially Allen and Keaton, trade deep philosphical ideas at the drop of a hat.
There’s plenty of Allen’s trademarks up to this point. Long scenes of slapstick with no dialogue. Quick one liners other writers would die for. Plenty of sexual misadventure and cowardice. It’s another film of largely unconnected set pieces, but each one is Allen at his comedic, surreal best.
Best thing about this film is Diane Keaton. For our money, this is her at her funniest. People talk to John Cusack or Owen Wilson being Woody Allen surrogates. Here, Keaton takes that role in many scenes. The fast talking, the slapstick, the wry smile – she is magnetic. She takes many scenes without allen, and the film is better for it.
Only Allen and Keaton get top billing (as opposed to the large, equally billed ensembles Allen would put together), but there are other fine performances. James Tolkan‘s Napoleon is manic, yet manages to be the straight man to our two wild leads. Olga-Georges-Picot as Countress Alexandrovna is all sex.
It’s interesting to note that this film came out in the same year as Stanley Kubrick‘s ‘Barry Lyndon‘. Both movies play on the same ground – it’s a surprise that one didn’t influence the other. Many scenes run parrallel – the big fights, the gun duel. And its interestng to see two master directors tackle similar subjects at such different angles.
Both those films are also ambitious productions. The scene in the battle field that last seconds, featuring explosions and dozens of extras, is the biggest thing Allen’s done to this point (maybe ever?). Made more amazing that the guy in the runaway cannon is also the guy directing the film.
What makes this film special in Allen’s canon are those big ideas. He toys with the ideas of morality, of murder, of meaning. Love and death itself. But to joke about it well, he shows that he knows his philosophy inside out. It’s played for laughs, but those wordy existential arguments are spot on.
Love And Death is amongst Allen’s funniest films. But it’s here that he starts to ask the questions that he will continue to ask for another 40 films.
Starring: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton