(Quick aside before my actual review. I told you all that I was on a hot streak. This movie was simply amazing and I’ve basically been bouncing around between “A”s and “B+”s for two or three weeks now. The selection of films that I currently have at home say this trend could possibly continue. Got to love it.)
Like many great artists, Woody Allen’s film career can be divided not-so-neatly into periods. His career started out with his screwball, slapstick comedies such as Take the Money and Run or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. Then, there was the transitional period between his more comedic films and his later, more serious work such as his magnum opus Annie Hall and Manhattan. Of course, there’s the serious period of Interiors, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Hannah and Her Sisters. And finally, you have Woody’s wonderful current renaissance where he’s back to bridging the gap between the comedic and the serious (i.e. Vicki Cristina Barcelona, Match Point, or Midnight in Paris). 1975’s Love and Death is often considered the last of Woody’s slapstick films, but it seems instead to be a great merger of his raunchy sensibilities of his early days with the more philosophical bent of his later films.
This is the Woody Allen film for the person in your life who knows his way around the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky better than the average American knows reality TV. With allusions abound to War and Peace, Crime and Punishment (whose title would later be the source of the pun of the title of Crimes and Misdemeanors) and The Brothers Karamazov (as well as weirdly enough, the films of Ingmar Bergman, particularly Persona ), Love and Death is simultaneously a spoof of classic Russian literature (and silly philosophical/ethical debates) while celebrating some of the elements that make those particular novels so beloved in the first place. That Woody Allen manages to tell an epic tale of love, war, silliness, and morality in only an hour and a half is astounding.
At the onset of the Napoleonic wars between Russia and France, Woody Allen plays Boris, a nebbish Woody Allen stand-in living as a peasant in rural Russia. He yearns for the heart of his cousin Sonia (Diane Keaton), but she is in love with Boris’ brother, Ivan. Boris is a lover and an intellectual (or at least he thinks so), and when war breaks out between Russia and France, he wants no part of the battle. Yet, he’s branded a coward by his family and sent off to fight anyways. I don’t want to ruin much more of the plot because in typical early Allen fashion, it snowballs in brilliant slapstick fashion but let’s just say there are plots against Napoleon, classic pistol duels, and bawdy sexual hijinks.
This is one of those classic comedies that is operating on just a million different levels and modes of humor. You have direct spoofs of classic Russian works such as a dialogue that name drops most of the major characters of Russian fiction (especially the works of Dostoyevsky). You have some sight gags, whether they’re direct film shout-outs such as the famous perpendicular faces from Persona or Cries and Whisper. You’ve got endless classic Woody monologues and dialogues having characters butcher formal logic (intentionally) or Woody just riffing on the ostentatious verbiage of classic Russian literature. There’s great awkward situational humor such as Boris’ attempts to seduce a beautiful (and busty) Countess. And then of course, there’s absolutely silly (but rhythmically perfect) slapstick abound. The jokes never stop in Love and Death.
Woody is never going to be the world’s greatest actor (although he does have some great performances, Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors spring immediately to mind), and he’s essentially playing himself in this film. Except instead of a nebbish, Jewish Manhattanite, he’s a nebbish, Russian orthodox Moscovian (is that the proper term). As great of a writer and director Woody is, it’s easy to forget how great he was at physical humor in these early films. He would have made Chaplin and Keaton proud. Diane Keaton was the real scene-stealer (as she was in Annie Hall). She is simply one of the most talented comedic actresses of all time. She manages to be a deliciously sexual concoction as Sonia as well as (at specific points in the film) a great doppleganger for Bergman regulars like Liv Ullmann.
The film may not carry the emotional weight of Annie Hall or Manhattan, but it’s certainly more laugh-out-loud funny than the latter (not so much the former which is why Annie Hall is so perfect). That doesn’t necessarily make it any less consistently thought-provoking as you can see in this film all of the bits and pieces that would ultimately go into making Annie Hall. Everyone loves to call Annie Hall Woody’s ultimate transition film, but Love and Death is just as deserving of that title. It’s a gut-busting triumph of smart and witty humor, and if you can handle your Woody Allen in almost total comedy mode, this film’s a home-run.
Final Score: A