When looking at the history of film, outside of prolific craftsmen like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it is increasingly difficult to find a voice as consistent and varied as director Woody Allen. With nearly 50 feature films to his name dating all the way back to the mid-1960s, the auteur has given his stamp to genres ranging from the romantic comedy (with the genre’s definitive masterpiece, Annie Hall) to film noir (the superbly underrated Shadows And Fog, which I’m an outspoken fan of), he has become one of the greatest directors of his time, and is still churning out interesting work to this very day.
His latest film, Blue Jasmine, has marked yet another revival of his career after a brief period in the late ‘90s-early ‘00s that saw the director become the ire of many cinephiles, and with films like Midnight In Paris and the real start of this late period of A-list Allen work, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (even if this writer would posit that his prior film, Cassandra’s Dream, is just as good and exponentially more interesting a film) he has proven once again that he’s a voice that has many more films ahead of him.
However, where does one go when getting passed his admitted classics (the Annie Halls, the Manhattans and the Hannah And Her Sisters of the world) and his current works? With a handful of top level pictures that have seemed to have fallen to the wayside, there is one film that may stand as one of the director’s most interesting early works.
Entitled Love And Death, Allen takes to one of his many interests, epic Russian literature, for this tale of love, conspiracy and all out comedy. Allen stars as Boris Grushenko who, upon Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Austria, is forced to join Russia’s army only to become a hero. When his second cousin, the beautiful Sonja (Diane Keaton) is widowed, he returns, weds her, only to attempt to take Napoleon’s life after he invades Russia. Full of philosophical debates, breathtaking sight gags and enough laughs to rival any of Woody Allen’s great comedies, this is a tried and true classic that deserves to be reconsidered as one of the auteur’s great pictures.
Besides being a genuinely great comedy, it’s also one of Allen’s more thematically entrancing pictures. Be it the various philosophical double talk or the still intriguing debate between Allen and Keaton about, if God doesn’t exist, why should one go on living, the film speaks to various heavy and provocative themes that Allen would, throughout his career, mine for comedy and drama alike. Oddly considered a pure comedian by many who simply know his “major” pieces of work, Allen is as intriguing a cinematic philosopher as he has ever been a film comedian.
In interviews, he’s said that someone like Bob Hope has played a rather large influence on his life, and this film is a cinematic proof of that very fact. A more loose picture narratively and verbally (as beautifully described by writer Stig Bjorkman in his series of interviews with the filmmaker), where much of the film is conversationally comedic sparring, wise cracks flowing like blood on a battlefield. Something deeply rooted in Hope’s work, this is seen perfectly in this film, and many of Allen’s earlier pictures. Chock full of interesting sight gags, the film will play even stronger to those who “get” the various references Allen pulls from here, ranging from Russian literature, all the way to his undeniably greatest influence, Ingmar Bergman.
Speaking of Bergman, not only is his influence all over this picture, but this may in fact be one of Allen’s more bombastic cinematic efforts. Getting influences from films like Seventh Seal and Persona all the way to pictures from the likes of Eisenstein, the film is one of Allen’s headier comedies and also more intriguing cinematic works. With stunningly rich photography from cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (best known for pictures ranging from Polanski’s Tess to Resnais Night And Fog), the film is lavishly shot and wondrously dressed, with pitch perfect set design and top notch costumes that really play into the Russian epic world from which it so potently draws. It’s also interesting in how Allen uses this world from far long ago to a perfect degree, when he’s best known as a director of urban landscapes. Let’s be real. One of his most iconic sequences, the opening of Manhattan, is an epic love letter to his hometown, and yet a picture like this and his underrated gem, A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy prove that Allen could shoot a period picture with the best of them.
Oh, and he’s a hell of an actor too. Paired, for only the third time mind you (second under Allen’s direction), with his first major muse, Diane Keaton, the film relies so heavily on their chemistry, and it is absolutely palpable. One of the greatest on screen duos in film history, they instantly have chemistry unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Keaton is pitch perfect for this type of role, particularly with her slender and naturally stunning look, and Allen as a war hero is truly a sight to be seen. Beautifully penned by Allen himself, this is a triumph of performance, aesthetic, theme and most importantly, comedy.
And frankly, it’s upsetting this film has become seen as “second tier” Allen. Relatively hard to find on home video, this film should be at the very top of the list of potential Criterion Collection releases. Toss in a commentary from someone like F. X. Feeney (critic who is all over the recent Woody Allen documentary simply titled Woody Allen: A Documentary) and a retrospective collection of interviews about the making of the film, and the fact that this does mark an early cinematic collaboration between Allen and Keaton could be fodder for some really interesting supplements. Toss in some great artwork, and this Allen masterpiece would make for a must own Criterion Collection Blu-ray. Hell, it would be must own if released by anyone.