DVD Review Of Love And Death
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/30/07
It’s an odd thing to experience art fresh and then re-experience it with greater knowledge about it and its sources. As example, as a Woody Allen fan I’d watched his terrific 1975 satire Love And Death, filmed in Hungary and France, probably ten or twelve times, fully getting all the references to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s and Leo Tolstoy’s works, but I had never been in the position of viewing the film having knowledge of all the sly European cinema references; especially those which poke fun at Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s canon.
Love And Death was the last ‘purely comedic’ Woody Allen film before he entered his great Golden Age, starting with 1977’s Annie Hall and ending with 1992’s Husbands And Wives. It was a romp, or as one of the aliens in 1980’s Stardust Memories said, ‘We enjoy your films. Particularly the early, funny ones.’ It was also a great showcase of his comedic talents in synch with those of Diane Keaton. No other foil- male nor female, has ever come close to the chemistry that duo exhibited. Of course, like almost all his films, Allen wrote, as well as directed this film. and it represented a step up from his earlier works, like Bananas, Take The Money And Run, or Sleeper.
In this film, however, narrative is not at issue, for the film is really a series of blackout sketches that satirize its two titular subjects. Woody plays Boris Dimitrovich Grushenko, a cowardly Russian peasant, who narrates the opening of the film while awaiting his execution, and Diane Keaton plays his cousin, and later to be wife, Sonja. After a series of misadventures, which see Boris drafted for the war against Napoleon, he becomes an accidental hero, and takes a gorgeous lover, Ludmilla, the Countess Alexandrovna (Olga Georges-Picot), after Sonja has married an old herring merchant. The countess declares to Boris, ‘You are a great lover!’ Boris says, ‘Thanks, I practice alot when I’m alone.’ Boris survives a pistol duel with his lover’s spurned lover, Anton (Harold Gould), and then weds Sonja, who only agrees to marry him because she thinks that he won’t survive the duel. Of course, this is classic Woody Allen, which at his best, is classic comedy, even as he borrows some of that theme from Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles Of A Summer Night.
But, again, it’s nothing more than a hilarious stringing together of gags and references to literature and film. Among the many things skewered are the famous steps scene in Battleship Potemkin, and Bergman’s film Persona’s juxtaposition of two female faces when Sonja and her cousin (Jessica Harper) muse on death. Bergman is also prevalent in the hilarious final scene of Boris dancing off with Death, an homage to the end of The Seventh Seal by Bergman. Literature take sits lumps, too, as in a parody scene where Boris and another character are speaking philosophically by invoking the names of famous Dostoevsky novels, or where Boris decides to become a poet, and pens the lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock: ‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws/scuttling across the floors of silent seas,’ and tosses it into a fire as too sentimental.
Then there is the classic Woody character- complete with his anachronistic eyeglasses, who really is the star of the film, despite bearing the name Boris. As example, Boris/Woody whines when he’s drafted, ‘I’m not the army type. I slept with the lights on till I was thirty. I can’t shower with other men.’ Then, he’s shown a parody of an Army training film on VD, except, due to the film’s setting in Napoleon’s era, it’s a hygiene play. Afterwards, when another soldier offers to take Boris to a brothel, he protests, ‘I went to a brothel once in my life. I got hiccups.’ Of God, Boris remarks, ‘If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever.’ But, the best and most subtle dig comes when Boris and a fellow soldier are talking of a dead man being the other soldier’s Village Idiot, and Boris asks, ‘So what did you do? Place?’ Later, he even drops off his own village’s idiot to a Russian National Village Idiot’s Convention. Another classic bit is when Boris’s brother Ivan dies and his wife and Sonja divvy up his letters, which turn out not to be missives, but vowels and consonants!
Eventually, though, the film has to have a putative reason to bring it to
a denouement, and this film’s reason is that Boris and Sonja decide to
assassinate Napoleon (James Tolkan) by pretending to be Spanish nobility. Boris
gets caught, while Sonja (who is the object of the Emperor’s affections)
escapes. Boris has an angelic vision that he will be pardoned, but it is false,
and he ends up dead.
The DVD, put out by MGM, is in terrific shape, with one side of the DVD in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, while the other is in the widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio. As is par for the course with all Allen films on DVD, there is only an original theatrical trailer, but no DVD commentary. The film excels with Ghislain Cloquet’s lush cinematography, and editor Ralph Rosenblum’s razor sharp editing, which never lets a gag go on too long. But, aside from Allen’s writing, the film excels with its use of music from Sergei Prokofiev, especially the opening and closing sharp and lighthearted Troika, from the Lieutenant Kije Suite.
The film succeeds and holds relevance today because its references and humor are timeless, but also because it works whether you get the references or not. Thus, it is both low and high comedy, and no one has ever done that better than Woody Allen- be it getting shot out of a canon, or psychobabbling with Diane Keaton over objectivity vs. subjectivity. Yes, it is not as deep and alternately hilarious as later Allen masterpieces like Hannah And Her Sisters or Crimes And Misdemeanors, but it is every bit as enjoyable, and that’s more than can be said for the bulk of films out there. Just ask your Village Idiot!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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