Title: Love and Death
Country: USA, France
Genre: Comedy, War
Director/Writer: Woody Allen
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Cinematography: Ghislain Cloquet
Alfred Lutter III
Into his eighties, Woody Allen is prolific as ever, his annual output has been tenaciously consistent, although these most recent ones seem to have lost his mojo after the unexpected resurgence of plaudits for MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) and a Cate Blanchett Oscar-bait showcase BLUE JASMINE (2013).
So one might feel more inclined to visit Allen’s time-honroured earlier works, LOVE AND DEATH, his sixth feature, a kooky war parody gets certain inspiration from classic Russian novel. During the Napoleonic Wars, Boris Grushenko (Allen), is the weakling of his Russian family, a bookish pacifist, the characteristic Allen-esque persona, pining for his twice-removed cousin Sonja (Keaton), but the latter doesn’t reciprocate with the same feeling, apart from their unbidden philosophical babble. When Napoleon (Tolkan, impersonates the personage with po-faced drollness) invades Austria, Boris and his brothers are enlisted in the Russian Army and sent to the front. However incompetent Boris is as a front-line soldier, a ludicrous and scarcely credible plot-device makes him a war hero.
Reunited with Sonja, who has just widowed after the departure of her herring merchant husband Voskovec (Frieder), Boris tactfully has his wicked way with a man-eater Countess Alexandrovna (Georges-Picot), and miraculously survives from a duel between him and the latter’s enraged lover and marksman Anton (Gould), more significantly, he takes advantage of Sonja’s sympathy (who can refuse a man’s dying wish?) and they marry eventually although it is to Sonja’s great chagrin, according to her ideal theory of love’s three aspects: intellectual, spiritual and sensual, Boris has never even been on her to-do list.
Time comes to the rescue, Sonja gradually softens her harsh view towards Boris, who instead, is plagued by the notion of suicide, since childhood, death has always fascinated and engrossed him, from his surreal dream of men coming out of coffins, to a chance meeting with the Grim Reaper himself as a child, until a tête-à-tête with a dead soldier in the battleground. Just when their relationship ameliorates and they decide to start a family, Napoleon invades the Russian Empire, Boris proposes to flee, but Sonja broaches a bold plan to assassinate Napoleon out of ire. Together, they impersonate as the visiting Spanish count and his sister, to meet Napoleon at his headquarter in Moscow, but the dispute between murder and moral conscience troubles Boris, when the crunch arrives, can he administer the coup de grâce? Or, is it a death knell for him to finally be take away by the Grim Reaper?
Throwaway jest aplenty, gallows humour delights, even the smart-aleck himself candidly confesses “my disgustingness is my best feature”, LOVE AND DEATH remarkably buries Allen’s usual pedantic pretension one inch beneath the tongue-in-cheek farce, also a full-blown Diane Keaton begins to upstage Allen with her comedic bent and emotive voltage.
Blatant homages to Ingmar Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) and PERSONA (1966) aside, the movie also pays tributes to various comedians with slapstick humour and self-conscious doublespeak, adopting a fine selection of passages from modern-classic Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, LOVE AND DEATH wallows in Woody Allen’s idealistic vim and vigour, not his best, but definitely belongs to the brighter side of his temperament.