LOVE AND DEATH was Woody Allen’s sixth movie as a director: with its thematic sophistication and production skill it served as a departure from his simpler silly stuff (all a lot of fun) to full-fledged maturity as a film-maker and humorist. It’s brilliantly funny. Along with Annie Hall, my favorite Allen film (he favors it, too).
Leaving the USA for the first time, abandoning the slapdash look of his previous works (people forget the polished Play It Again, Sam was directed by Herbert Ross), Allen went on location in and around Budapest and Paris, with big crowds in lavish settings. Ghislain Cloquet provided the rich camerawork; Allen made an inspired choice selecting Sergei Prokofiev’s wondrous classical music for his score.
Czarist Russia, 1812. Napoleon is about to strike. Boris Grushenko is torn from his love, cousin Sonya, and sent to the front where, despite his cowardice, he becomes an inadvertent hero. Between the flood of great gags and pratfalls, Allen weaves playful swipes at ‘heavy’ Russian literary tradition–Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gurdjieff– and their pondering of Life, and adds homage to Bergman for a chaser.
It tickles and guffaws through 85 minutes (just right) of absurd speeches and one-liners, and was a hit in 1975, making around $20,000,000 in the States, coming in at the 18th spot on the years box office list. Allen and Diane Keaton once again work marvelously together—she is just wonderful—and the packed supporting cast is a farceurs delight. People who don’t like Woody Allen won’t bother with this (their loss), and many fans who don’t appreciate the esoteric allusions to all the existential headaches might prefer his more relatable urban shtick. Still, there’s enough sheer goofiness on view that you’d think anyone with a light side would enjoy.
Lunatic moments with brothers ‘Ivan’ and ‘Mikhail’, with ‘Voskovec the Herring Merchant’, with the drill sergeant and assorted soldiers, the hard-breathing ‘Countess Alexandrovna’, the jealous ‘Anton’, ‘Count Francisco’, and of course, Napoleon.