Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Harold Gould, Jessica Harper, James Tolkan
It is popular belief that Woody Allen’s most recent films mark his first sojourn to Europe, but that forgets that he was there back in 1975 for the last of his “early funny ones” (i.e., films made before Annie Hall). And the results were pretty spectacular. In fact, Love and Death still strikes me as the best of Allen’s wholly comedic films. Here he evidences a mastery of filmmaking that’s just not there in his earlier movies. The film is essentially a combined parody of the works of Sergei Eisenstein (complete with music by Sergei Prokofiev, some of which was written for Eisenstein’s 1938 classic Alexander Nevsky) and Ingmar Bergman. And as is usually the case, it’s an example of how all the best parodies are made by folks who are absolutely nuts about the material they’re parodying. Allen plays…well, essentially Allen, and that’s funny in itself since the film takes place in early 19th century Russia. Of course, it’s 19th century Russia in strictly Allenesque terms, which means, for example, that there’s a clichéd black drill sergeant (“God damn you, you love Russia, don’t you?”) in Allen’s basic army training for the war with Napoleon. And while the film is full of relatively deep Bergmanesque concerns, they’re all presented in Allenesque terms — like wondering, since Christ was a carpenter, what he charged for bookshelves. The jokes are absolutely nonstop and while they’re all enriched by how much you know about Bergman and Eisenstein, it’s not essential to “getting” most of the humor. (That said, Allen does tend to assume a pretty strong general frame of reference in his viewers, which is refreshing.) Absurd from start to finish, it may just be Allen’s funniest film. It’s also one of his best-looking (OK, so the white foam being palmed off as snow in the duel scene tends to stick to the actors’ shoes like — well, white foam), which only makes the comedy that much funnier. The simple question, “Did you say wheat?” will never be the same.
In Brief: The last of Woody Allen’s films that qualifies as one of his “early funny ones,” Love and Death may well be Allen’s most completely successful such film. A wildly comedic spoof of all things Ingmar Bergman and Sergei Eisenstein, the film is pure Allen without the often awkward staging that mars the physical comedy in his earlier works. Woody as a Russian soldier in the war with Napoleon — making no change whatever in his bearing, manner, or glasses — is a comedic inspiration like no other.