Jon Frosch

Defending Woody

As New York Times film critic A.O. Scott noted recently,The yearly Woody Allen release has become a reliably anti-climactic American cinematic event. Once considered a great film auteur, Allen has, over the last 10 years, come to be thought of as an ex-genius who has lost his touch. His most unwavering admirers (an endangered species) await his films with bated breath, hoping they'll be solid enough to maintain his precarious status as a nonetheless important American filmmaker; his harshest critics unfailingly trash each of his pictures as further evidence of a stale artistic sensibility increasingly alienated from our cultural moment. Some suggest that Allen abandon his rigorous one-film-a-year work ethic and try to make the next one count; others go as far as to wish that he stop making movies altogether, since he has nothing left to say.

This collective disdain has been perhaps the most unjustified condemnation of a still vitally talented film genius that America has seen in recent years. While Allen's films over the past decade don't measure up to his masterpieces – they lack the nonstop laughs of Sleeper (1973), the bittersweet zing of Annie Hall (1977), the romantic vision of Manhattan (1979), the novelistic complexity of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), or the dark philosophical pull of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) – they are still a remarkably diverse and inventive bunch of movies, varying slightly in quality, but all exuberant and tricky in their own way. In a just world, Woody Allen's recent body of work would enable him to guard his title as one of the consistently best American directors. But for various reasons, not all of them necessarily related to the films themselves, Allen is widely regarded as having fallen from creative grace.

His new film, Melinda and Melinda, which opens Friday in select cities, alternates tragic and comic versions of the same story: A troubled young woman inadvertently wreaks emotional havoc on the lives of those around her. The film has generated buzz as Allen's most substantial work in years. As is often the case, the advance word is misleading: Melinda and Melinda is in fact just as light as most of Allen's latest fare, and sometimes disappointingly flat; as is always the case with Allen's films, it's still far more interesting than the majority of American movies. Allen takes off from a rather thin narrative gimmick: debating whether life is essentially comic or tragic, two writers take turns spinning a tale about the alluring but unstable Melinda, each in his fashion. In the tragic take, a chain-smoking, pill-popping Melinda (Radha Mitchell) tries to escape a tumultuous past and ends up a catalyst for romantic chaos revolving around a charming pianist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the deteriorating marriage of her childhood friend Laurel (Chlo� Sevigny) to an alcoholic actor (Jonny Lee Miller). In the comic take, an innocuously frazzled Melinda becomes the object of desire for Hobie (Will Ferrell), a bumbling out-of-work actor married to a self-absorbed director (Amanda Peet).

Much of the film is graceful and absorbing, and Mitchell is compelling – by turns ravaged and charming – in her dual roles. Yet there's an occasional sense of slackness and inconsequentiality about it all. The tragic version has several lovely moments, many of which can be attributed to Sevigny's marvelously delicate portrayal of a rich girl realizing the price of the conventional life she's chosen. What's missing is a sense of danger, a sense that there's something truly at stake in the characters' crises. Part of the problem is that Melinda's stormy history is so trite and unconvincing that a climactic betrayal which threatens her newfound happiness doesn't sting the way it should. The comic version is warm and engaging, but its Melinda is rather blandly conceived, and apart from a few sequences – particularly a disastrous day trip to the Hamptons with a studly dentist – the laughs just aren't frequent enough. Allen's implication that the distinction between comedy and tragedy is blurry – that comedy is laced with sadness and tragedy contains elements of the ridiculous – is haunting, but one can't help wishing that his tragic version was slightly darker and his comic version slightly wittier.

If Melinda and Melinda is not the best of Allen's recent films, it's still ample proof that his filmmaking talent is very much alive. As always, he gets uniformly strong performances from his actors, all perfectly at home in Allen's universe of articulate, unhappy New Yorkers. If Ferrell, in the Allen surrogate role, lacks the irrational spark that Allen himself would have given to the line readings, he has a softness that pays off beautifully when he finally confesses his feelings for Melinda. And Miller and Peet do sharp send-ups of their insecure industry climbers without ever crossing over into mockery. Despite its shortcomings, there's something about Melinda and Melinda – a reflective quality, a sweetness – that lingers with you: it may not be a fully realized piece of work, but like all of Allen's films, no matter how slight, it's not like anything else out there.

A survey proves that the same is true for all of the director's movies over the last 10 years, during which anti-Allenism has hit its virulent peak. Everyone Says I Love You (1996) is the most delightfully imaginative modern movie musical, and contains Allen's single most romantic scene, in which Goldie Hawn breaks into flight while dancing along the Seine. Some critics emphasized the sheepishly amateurish singing of the actors; some of us think that therein lies the film's magical charm, as the characters themselves look surprised to be bursting into song. In a jarring transition, Allen's next movie, 1997's Deconstructing Harry, is his nastiest piece of work to date – a diatribe against marriage, religion, and the literary world – but also one of his most vividly imagined (who can forget his elevator-equipped Hell, presided over by a grinning Billy Crystal?) and dazzling acted by a dynamic ensemble. The equally angry Celebrity (1998) is a mess – choppy, unevenly written, with an abrasive Kenneth Branagh – but it's a fascinating mess, full of bitterly funny flashes and featuring one of the most gorgeous moments Allen has ever filmed: a midnight rendezvous outside a subway station between Branagh and Winona Ryder.

1999's Sweet and Lowdown, a tart yet deeply affecting comedy about a 1930s jazz musician (an inspired Sean Penn), marked Allen's return to more intimate filmmaking. The result was not only a vibrant homage to this period of jazz history, but also a penetrating examination of the loneliness of artistic genius. Then came two decidedly small-scale films: Small Time Crooks (2000), a nimble, affectionate satire of the nouveau riche, is perhaps the flat-out funniest of Allen's recent movies; The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), a period caper with charmingly corny banter between Allen and Helen Hunt's take-charge efficiency expert, was dismissed as pointless by critics who ignored the film's crisp pacing and ingenious re-creation of 1940's office life.

2002's Hollywood Ending, in which a director shoots his comeback film while battling psychosomatic blindness, received some of the worst reviews of Allen's career. But if the movie is more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, it's nonetheless awfully entertaining and clever in its conception of cinematic brilliance as utterly random. Finally there's Anything Else (2003), the most brutally underrated film of Allen's career, a jazzy, poignant comedy about a young writer (a soulful Jason Biggs, conveying a vulnerability and an impeccable comic timing untapped in his teen comedy roles) stumbling towards independence while getting his heart broken by a mercurial girlfriend (Christina Ricci). It's a movie of sublime moments: Biggs trying to strike the perfect pose as he waits for Ricci before their first date; Stockard Channing singing "There'll Be Another Spring" during one of Biggs' and Ricci's late-night spats; Biggs spying on Ricci as she leaves her acting class, to the strains of Billie Holliday singing "Just the Way You Look Tonight." Anything Else is the loosest, most mature and generous of Allen's recent films, and one of the overlooked treasures of 2003.

No great filmmaker has ever been expected to make masterpiece after masterpiece. Why then are American critics so hard on Allen, who has continued to craft superior entertainments, even if they're not as ambitious as much of his earlier work? Many say that he's been repeating himself for the last 10 years, an absurdly inaccurate claim given the striking diversity of his latest phase of work. Allen has integrated themes of art, love, New York, and existential distress into an escapist musical, two period pieces, slapstick comedies about blue-collar anxiety and filmmaking, acerbic confessional films about the narcissism of writers and the poison of fame, a wistful ode to 20-something heartbreak, and a genre exercise about the thin line between laughter and despair. He has indeed proven as resourceful as any contemporary director in finding different contexts and tones with which to explore his preferred preoccupations.

Another accusation leveled against Allen is that he's become increasingly mean-spirited in his portrayals of women. There's no denying that Allen's female characters are sometimes difficult and high-strung, but to label him a misogynist is a knee-jerk oversimplification. The pursuit of romantic fulfillment – and the frustration at sometimes falling short – has been the unifying theme of Allen's work, and few American male directors have confronted their messy feelings towards women with such candor and originality. Allen's last 10 years of work boast a plethora of rich, smart female roles (a rarity in America cinema which generally favors charming wallflowers) and a wealth of memorable female performances. Those who claim that women in Allen's films are almost invariably monsters have not been paying attention: in Everyone Says I Love You, a warm, grounded Goldie Hawn plays Allen's ex-wife whom he continues to go to for advice; in Deconstructing Harry, the hilarious Hazelle Goodman is a no-nonsense prostitute who's the only one able to talk Harry through his breakdowns; Samantha Morton's touchingly steadfast Hattie is the sympathetic moral compass of Sweet and Lowdown; Tea Leoni's likeable, brisk Ellie is the heroine of Hollywood Ending, guiding the blind Allen through his film shoot, while never forgetting to put him in his place; Radha Mitchell's comic Melinda in Allen's latest is a less flighty variation of Annie Hall who's intuitive enough to choose the right guy.

Moreover, many of the characters who have been cited as proof of Allen's contempt for women are far more complex than one might think. The furious ladies of Deconstructing Harry – Judy Davis, Kirstie Alley, Demi Moore, Amy Irving, and Caroline Aaron, all superb – may be shrill, but they're also warranted in their anger. In scenes of lacerating comic rage, Allen has them vent their grievances against him without letting us forget that it's his own selfish character on trial. Small Time Crooks features Tracey Ullman as a shameless social climber and Elaine May as her riotously dimwitted cousin, but both are so lovingly rendered that they end up stealing the film. Anything Else's Amanda is a manipulator, but as played by a devastatingly charismatic Christina Ricci, she's also captivating; we see why Biggs is trapped in his romantic fascination even as she's trampling all over him.

Even more critics have griped about the aging Allen's selection of young, attractive actresses as his romantic costars. The director knows that few can play his fidgety, verbally-inclined protagonists as well as he can, and many of Allen's detractors seem to have missed the sly angles he uses to justify unlikely pairings: in Everyone Says I Love You, Allen has to get inside information about Julia Roberts' secret passions and present himself as her soul-mate in order for her to fall for him; in Deconstructing Harry, Elisabeth Shue's radiant Fay is an infatuated fan of Allen's character's novels, but leaves him once she realizes the limitations of this kind of adoration; when Charlize Theron's bored Manhattan princess seduces Allen in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, she declares it's an experiment in sleeping with unathletic-looking men. Complaints about Allen's cinematic dealings with women indeed seem more like backlash in regards to his real-life situations than well thought-out objections. Natural disgust over Allen's personal scandals mixed with an unfortunate American tendency to judge the public figure by the private life have undoubtedly contributed to the unforgiving reception of the filmmaker's work over the last 10 years. Allen's so-called artistic "decline" coincides a bit too neatly with his highly publicized break-up, unorthodox re-marriage, and allegations of child molestation.

Perhaps the most cutting criticism of Allen is that he's become tone-deaf in portraying the way people behave and speak. Yet has Allen ever truly sought to represent common modes of expression or typical emotional inclinations? His affair with Mariel Hemingway's high-schooler in Manhattan, the romantic confusion of Hannah and Her Sisters, the overheard therapy sessions of Another Woman, the intertwining of marital crisis and magical realism in Alice, the murder in Crimes and Misdemeanors – all involve specific people confronting crises within their rarefied lives, reacting in fashions sprung more from Allen's own distinctive way of being and intellectual influences than from any social reality. Rather than taking the pulse of disillusioned modern souls (like a Neil LaBute, Todd Solondz, or Alexander Payne), Allen has always been both an intensely personal and deeply nostalgic filmmaker. The arpeggios of neurotic dialogue, the references to Russian literature, French cinema, and German philosophy, the classic jazz soundtracks, and the brainy men "crazy about" enchantingly unhinged women have never been especially authentic indications of current American cultural tendencies. Perhaps critics are correct in noting that Allen's artistic sensibility seems more out of tune with our times than ever. I'm still not sure why this is a problem. And so what if his newer films aren't as good as his older ones? Woody Allen is a stubborn artist who sticks around, desperately attached to his own vision of things, which he continues to bring to the screen every year with generally impressive results. This in itself is worthy not only of respect, but of celebration.

The French New Vague

As one is often reminded in France, cinema is a French invention. The Lumière brothers are credited with the first motion pictures at the end of the 19th century, and influential movements like the avant-garde, Poetic-Realist and New Wave have contributed to the French sense that historically, film is a realm very much their own. Paris has been known to boast more film journals, retrospectives, revivals, and movies playing each week than any other city in the world. Not even a century-long cinematic rivalry with America and an increasingly Hollywood-dominated French film market have seemed to drastically diminish France’s image of itself as pioneers of this cultural field.

But is France living in the past? Have the French lost their position as artistic leaders of the film world, their cinematic tradition slowly but surely losing its luster? Commercially speaking, the data is unambiguous. In 2004, six out of the 10 highest-grossing films in France were American, slightly down from seven in 2003 and eight in 2002. The single most successful film in France in 2004, however, was Les Choristes, released Jan. 14 in selected American cities as The Chorus and nominated this week for best foreign film and best song Oscars. Its hometown success is significant, as The Chorus is the rare recent French film that has more than held its own against an endless Hollywood invasion.

Indeed, France’s national cinema – once proudly associated with glamorous names like Bardot, Depardieu, and Deneuve, as well as wildly talented directors like Truffaut and Godard – has been gradually eroding as it struggles to compete with lucratively exported American films. In Europe, France is recognized as the country that has managed to maintain a relatively high degree of autonomy in the face of the Hollywood steamroller, but the extent to which American film dominates French cinematic culture is nevertheless astounding. The unexpected success of The Chorus—a crowd-pleaser about a school for troubled boys in the late 1940’s—has therefore been received in France as a pleasant indication that French cinema is still alive and kicking.

The bad news is that the movie itself is not very good. A remake of a 1949 French film, La Cage aux Rossignols, The Chorus is a shamelessly sentimental and improbable piece of fluff, a sort of Gallic, all-male Mona Lisa Smile. That film, however, as blatantly conventional as it might have been, at least captured rather convincingly the kind of controversial spell a charismatic young teacher can cast over her students. The Chorus doesn’t even bother to explore this hackneyed phenomenon of pedagogical inspiration. The affable Clément coaches a group of rowdy pubescent rebels into an angelic sounding boys’ choir, and the transformation, as portrayed, is immediate and utterly random. The film helps itself to every cliché of the genre—the tyrannical principal, the bad boy with a hidden talent, the climactic farewell scene—to tug impatiently at our heartstrings, yet nothing rings true. The Chorus may be a commercial redemption for the French film industry, but it is by no means a creative victory.

The film’s success can be explained away by the presence of an immensely likeable lead actor, Gérard Jugnot, an undemanding storyline fit for viewers of all ages, and an easy-to-swallow message: that inside every surly misfit is a gift waiting to be coaxed out. More bothersome than the film’s self-congratulatory moralism, however, is the bland, manufactured quality of the film-making. One gets the feeling, while watching The Chorus, that it might as well not be a French film at all, that the same movie could have been made by a Hollywood studio. None of this would be worth noting – it’s not the first foreign film to make an unabashed bid for global appeal – were it not for two key factors that are unavoidably – and troublingly – linked: firstly that The Chorus was the highest-grossing film of 2004 in France; and secondly that the film is almost totally incongruous with the long-standing tradition of exhilaratingly messy emotional realism in modern French film. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie may have been brazen in its effort to delight and dazzle, but it was also sprung from an undeniably fresh artistic sensibility and a canny sense of romantic Paris mythology. Perhaps more than any other French film released internationally in recent years, The Chorus seems to indicate a dramatic departure from the distinctive strengths of contemporary French cinema: the ambiguous, intricately mapped human relationships of André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds and My Favorite Season; the provocative overlapping of fantasy and reality in François Ozon’s Under the Sand and Swimming Pool; the unflinching dissection of female friendship in Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels; the wittily observed romantic complications of Agnès Jaoui’s The Taste of Others.

That The Chorus has proven so successful in France is a disquieting sign that French cinema is undergoing an identity crisis. More and more French directors are adjusting to the increasingly Americanized tastes of the French masses by making movies “à l’américaine”: big-budget action films, like Matthieu Kassovitz’ The Crimson Rivers, and low-brow comedies, few of which reach American screens. Even less patently American-influenced French movies are beginning to reveal tendencies never considered typical of French cinema. Jeunet’s recent A Very Long Engagement is bombastic and overblown in the same way American war epics such as Saving Private Ryan and Cold Mountain often are. Cédric Klapisch’s minor, though entertaining 2003 summer sleeper L’Auberge Espagnole is even broader and more accessible than its American counterpart, Ben Stiller’s mainstream but surprisingly insightful grunge classic Reality Bites.

More and more successful French films reflect this same divergence – evident in The Chorus – from classic French cinematic “values” of authenticity and subtlety, drifting instead towards emotional overstatement, narrative predictability, and emphasis on production rather than content (all glaring flaws of American filmmaking). It would be perhaps going too far, however, to argue that French cinema is unequivocally going downhill. Three recent French releases in the States – Patrice Leconte’s romantic teaser Intimate Strangers, Julie Bertucelli’s poignant family drama Since Otar Left, and Cedric Kahn’s Hitchcockian thriller Red Lights—are proof that the French film industry is still producing interesting movies. These films are also proof that French cinema’s strengths are, as they always have been, in intimate, character-driven pieces, erotic mysteries, and film noir. Unfortunately, these kinds of challenging films are less popular than ever in France, particularly among French youth, whose Americanized expectations are leading them further and further away from an awareness of their own cinematic legacy. Brahim Hajji, an economics student at a Parisian university, admits that movements like the New Wave are now largely unknown to young French people. “People find those movies too serious, too intellectual,” he explains. “It’s the kind of film that France does best, but sometimes the heaviness of those films prevents you from enjoying them.” The result, according to Mr. Hajji, is the abundance of French films that emulate American styles and genres, pumped out to compete financially with Hollywood. “French movies that imitate American cinema are pretty bad,” Mr. Hajji notes matter-of-factly, “but many typically French films are not so fun to watch.”

Though this last claim is subjective – a matter of taste – there might be some truth to the idea that aside from the Hollywood-style films being made in France today, the more typically French films are not consistently very good. Many American film critics still glorify French cinema, extolling its intellectual and aesthetic virtues beyond reason; those who praised Catherine Breillat’s unwatchable Anatomy of Hell as a penetrating reflection on gender relations fall into this category. Yet the fashionable intellectual notion that instinctively equates French film with brilliance and American film with commercial emptiness seems far from the reality of the current situation. French films are still often quite good, but there is an undeniable dearth of truly excellent movies from France in recent years.

This fact is perhaps less a reflection of the quality of the films themselves than of the differing cinematic ideologies of French and American filmmakers. French movies are generally smaller-scale, not just financially, but in artistic scope as well. They rarely reach for the operatic grandeur of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, the technical audacity of Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, or even the emotional directness of American indies like In the Bedroom or You Can Count on Me. Aspirations of French filmmakers indeed seem more modest, less arrogant, and perhaps less daring. Benjamin Vié, a 31-year-old French graphic designer and devoted cinephile, tries to understand these differences: “American films elevate their stories into the sublime or dramatic, while French films are quieter and don’t make big statements.” Mr. Vié maintains that he admires French cinema, but the films that have deeply impacted him in recent years—The Thin Red Line, American Beauty, and Memento, to name a few—have been American. “I usually go see American films,” he says. “They’re likely to be more of an escape, something that I wouldn’t recognize from my everyday life. French films are more realistic, and for me less striking.”

Today French cinema finds itself threatened by an increasingly diverse array of American movies: high-quality blockbusters and animated features such as Spiderman 2 and Finding Nemo, stylish auteur films like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Michael Moore’s provocative documentaries, and elegant mainstream movies like Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Michael Mann’s Collateral. If anything, American film, though frequently dictated by Hollywood’s repressive standards, has become more varied and risky. The same cannot necessarily be said of current French cinema. As with its literary and visual arts, one gets the impression that in terms of film, France remains a prisoner of its mighty past—the proliferation of cinematic movements, groundbreaking directors, and internationally recognized masterpieces that came out of France right up through the 1960’s. Mireia Ibars, a post-production manager in Paris, confirms this notion that France has yet to evolve past its glory days to forge a new era of French cinema. “French film has been on a slow decline for several years now,” she observes. “There’s a lack of risk-taking, a shortage of new voices. The auteur movement is no longer inspired, so mainstream French cinema competes with American films by making easy movies that sell but aren’t very good.” Like The Chorus, for example. “The thing is,” Ms. Ibars continues, “many of these American films are good.”

One would think that America’s domination of France in a sphere in which the French historically claim superiority—the arts—would be a brutal slap in the face. Indeed, there is a certain collective effort to protect French film from the American threat. French film industry practices like the rule of “cultural exception”—which gives a certain percentage of the money movies make in France to local production companies—are used to boost French cinema. French actors often declare proudly that they’re not tempted by Hollywood. And when a truly superior French film is released, like Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen (lauded at this fall’s New York Film Festival), there’s a genuine feeling of celebration that goes beyond the sense of relief provided by a financial coup like The Chorus.

Yet it would be inaccurate to conclude that France has negative feelings towards American film. On the contrary, the French appreciate our cinema, often more deeply than we do. As much as Parisian intellectuals gripe about the latest American “navet” (French for turnip, or, incidentally, bad film), most recently the Nicolas Cage vehicle National Treasure, hordes of people nevertheless show up for these movies. Film buffs, of course, are partial to less commercial American cinema, and several American films – Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and David Lynch’s Lost Highway, for example—that were critical and box office disappointments at home, are considered masterpieces in France. American auteurs such as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Woody Allen and the Coen brothers are adored in France with steadfastness unparalleled even by their most loyal followers in the States. Current Parisian film cycles are dedicated to John Cassavetes, Humphrey Bogart, Nicholas Ray and Tim Burton. This past year, Steven Spielberg was made knight and Martin Scorsese officer in the French Legion of Honor, and Leonardo DiCaprio was given the prestigious Arts and Letters award. According to Ms. Ibars, the post-production manager, many of the films that have inspired people working in the French film industry are American. “The consensus is that there are more geniuses working in American film than any other country,” she affirms. “The French like American cinema too much to be against it.”

In a tense phase of French-American relations, it appears that cinema is a domain in which the French continue to exhibit considerable admiration for us. It is also a field in which French-American collaboration can be carried out to fruitful effect: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the very best film of 2004, joins an inspired American script and cast with a French director, Michel Gondry, possessed of a unique visual sense and a complicated, bittersweet romantic vision typical of the very best French cinema. If film is an inevitable source of international rivalry, it is also, in the respect, affection, and exchange of creativity it can elicit, one of the most powerful diplomatic tools we have.


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