Love and Death

If your two favorite things are slapstick comedies and epic Russian literature, then this might be your favorite movie ever.

Woody Allen

Trevor Gilks

1975

One of the most common criticisms of Woody Allen is that he repeats himself — that he’s basically making the same movies with the same characters over and over again. So far, there hasn’t been much self-plagiarism. What we’ve mostly seen is a talented, successful writer/director/actor exploring, perhaps timidly, the edges of his comfort zone. But Love and Death, despite being a very funny and unique Woody Allen experience, is burdened with a creeping sense of familiarity.

Watching Love and Death, you get the impression that this wasn’t the movie Allen would have liked to have been making. In certain regards, this is an incredibly ambitious film. The movie’s plot and themes are inspired by Russian authors Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Filmed in Hungary with Oscar-winning cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, Love and Death is filled with beautiful countryside vistas, opulent sets and intricately staged battle scenes. Musically, Allen ditches the wacky jazz of his previous efforts and replaces it with lush Sergei Prokofiev orchestrations. In the moments when Allen is off-screen, Love and Death looks more like Lawrence of Arabia than Take the Money and Run.

Scene from Love and Death
This is a Woody Allen comedy

Yet, all that ambition is just window dressing to the slapstick humor, which is still the film’s reason for existence (in 1975, Woody Allen probably couldn’t have sold MGM on a sincere Tolstoy re-telling). And the comedy, sadly, is filled with the first signs of the laziness and self-plagiarism that would one day topple the Woody Allen artistic empire. Love and Death is a lot like Sleeper. It’s also a lot like Bananas, and occasionally a lot like Take the Money and Run. The familiarity of the movie caught me off-guard, especially after the freshness of Sleeper. There’s an army training montage and a dream sequence borrowed from Bananas, a seduction borrowed from both Sleeper and Take the Money and Run, a failed attempt to amuse a King reminiscent of the Allen-as-court-jester chapter of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, and a handful of similar-sounding jokes about sex, death, insurance salesmen, etc.

Not least of all, the fundamental premise is borrowed from Sleeper — once again, present-day Woody Allen is transplanted into a radically different time period. In Sleeper it was the future, this time it’s Napoleonic-era Russia. Sleeper explained that Allen had been frozen for 200 years; here, there’s no explanation as to why, in a movie set in 19th-century rural Russia, the protagonist is a New York-accented Jew with plastic, thick-framed glasses. Not that it needs one, particularly — it’s actually funnier and more efficient to simply be asked to accept the film’s absurd premise (in fact, a lot of the movie’s humor comes from its willful, deliberate anachronism).

What Sleeper was to Fahrenheit 451, Love and Death is to War and Peace — a loose, comically exaggerated re-telling. Or, perhaps some sort of hybrid of War and Peace and Crime and Punishment. This is effectively established by the opening monologue, delivered by Allen over an operatic score:

“How I got into this predicament I’ll never know. Absolutely incredible, to be executed for a crime I’ll never commit. Of course, isn’t all mankind in the same boat? Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency.

I have a tremendous yearning to be young again. A boy. Such happy memories at our summer house. Uncle Nicolai with his wonderful laugh. God, he was repulsive. And my own father, a handsome noble man. In addition to our summer and winter estates, he owned a valuable piece of land. True, it was a small piece, but he carried it with him wherever he went. He was an idiot.”

Allen is playing Boris Grushenko, a coward in an otherwise brave family. We first see Boris as a child, already wearing Allen’s trademark glasses. He has a run-in with Death, looking much as he did in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Death doesn’t claim Boris’ life, but he does give him grave warnings, and answers a few important questions.

Scene from Love and Death
“What happens after you die? Is there a heaven? Is there a hell? Are there girls?”
“You’re an interesting young man. We’ll meet again.”
“Don’t bother.”
“Oh, it’s no bother.”

Woody Allen’s first appearance in person comes shortly after, at a family party. Amongst the burly Russian men with fearsome beards and grizzled faces, 120 pounds of personified awkwardness with thick glasses bounds out enthusiastically (but disastrously) during a dance. It’s simple, but it’s very well played and, combined with the opening monologue, sets the movie off to a promising start.

Scene from Love and Death
Woody Allen in a scene from Love and Death

Following the party, we’re introduced to Sonja, Boris’ cousin and love-interest (although, alas, she is in love with his brother). In their first meeting, they have a lengthy, in-depth philosophical debate about the nature of morality, religion and death. Such conversations would become commonplace in Woody Allen films, but they’re relatively new at this point. There are numerous similar conversations in the film (over half a dozen), and they are quite strange in that they occupy an awkward middle ground between silly and serious. In almost every instance, it begins as a sincere exchange of ideas, but grows simultaneously more pedantic and obtuse with each argument until they’re literally reciting gibberish at each other. Or, in other instances, a straight-faced conversation is swiftly deflated with a non-sequitur punchline. It’s well done, and as a satire of (or homage to) Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s lengthy musings, it’s effective, but after five or six repetitions, surely even Allen himself must have felt that well was running a bit dry. Although, I am willing to concede that there may have been subtleties that were lost on me.

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in a scene from Love and Death
“So who is to say what is moral?
“Morality is subjective.”
“Subjectivity is objective.”
“Moral notions imply attributes to substances which exist only in relational duality.”
“Not as an essential extension of ontological existence.”
“Can we not talk about sex so much?”

Boris’ peaceful rural life is abruptly interrupted when Napoleon’s armies march ever closer to “Mother Russia.” Despite his opposition (“I’m a militant coward”), he is sent off to war along with his more gung-ho brothers. As I mentioned previously, the training sequence borrows from the training sequence in Bananas, which itself felt cliche. But, it does add one new, hilarious twist, with a profoundly anachronistic, shit-talking drill-sergeant.

Woody Allen in a scene from Love and Death
You are the worst goddamn soldier I even seen. Do you love Mother Russia?”
“Well, I...”
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”

Once full-on war breaks out, Love and Death makes the most effective use of its technical qualifications. The fact that it looks like an awards-baiting historical epic make Allen’s usual antics look sillier and funnier by comparison.

Scene from Love and Death
Woody Allen in a scene from Love and Death

Through a series on unlikelihoods involving being fired from a cannon at a tent of French generals, Boris ends up as a war hero. This does little to impress Sonja (who still pines for Boris’ now-deceased brother), although it does endear him to a beautiful Countess (Olga Georges-Picot). When the Count finds out about their consummated love, he challenges Boris to a duel. Assuming that he’s going to die at the hands of the Count, Sonja agrees to marry him, essentially out of pity.

This is Diane Keaton’s third appearance in a Woody Allen movie, and second in a row. She is a natural romantic comedy actress — almost effortlessly, she comes across as likable, sweet, interesting and relatable. Amidst the goofiness of the last two films, though, she’s relying on a somewhat different talent — her sincerity and wide-eyed obliviousness is an excellent contrast to Woody Allen’s typical obsessive worrying about everything. Between this and Sleeper she’s been required to be everything from a lustful housewife to an enraged militant, and she approaches each new role with the same exuberant, hopeful sincerity.

Even by Woody Allen comedy standards, this movie’s plot careens wildly and aimlessly from point to point. After his unlikely survival in the dual, Boris and Sonja get married and undertake a plot to assassinate Napoleon (who has already been overthrown and replaced by a double in a confusing, extraneous subplot). On the way to murder him, they have a few more pseudo-intellectual discussions about morality and the nature of murder. The more I think about these conversations, the more I wonder if Woody Allen was testing how serious he could get away with being, and retreating back into jokes when he’s worried he’s going too far and potentially alienating his then-sizable fan base.

The references in this movie come fast and often. Recounting them all would take forever and inevitably be tedious, so I will try to cover them briefly (and I’m sure there are dozens I missed). Several scenes re-enact/pay homage to Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers; a snowy shoot-out mirrors the one in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller; during a brief tenure as a poet, Boris writes “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas” before deciding it’s no good and tossing it out; a character named Raskolnikov kills two women and asks some brothers named Karamazov what he should do about it; there’s another visual reference to The Battleship Potemkin; Boris goes to war equipped with a butterfly net.

Woody Allen and Vladmir Nabakov
Woody Allen (left) and Vladmir Nabakov

I’ve already mentioned the portrayal of Death, but another visual Bergman reference comes during a dialogue scene that pays tribute to the Swedish director’s most famous composition (see below).

Cries and Whispers, Persona and Love and Death comparison — Bergman, Woody Allen
Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Cries and Whispers (top) and Love and Death.

So far, I’ve filled this review with a lot of criticisms, but I should make it clear that this is not an unfunny movie. Especially if you’re a Russian literature enthusiast (you’ll probably pick up on twice the jokes and find them twice as funny). But even for pseudo-illiterates such as myself, the movie is filled with successful, accessible humor. In fact, much like every other Woody Allen movie so far, almost every line and every scene is a joke, and a significant portion of them hit their mark. My favorite is the recurring joke of soldiers rising poetically from the dead, only to embark on inane tasks (like getting a receipt for a pawned ring). Also funny is the fact that Death is a sarcastic jerk and, it turns out, a bit of a flake.

Love and Death was met with incredible praise when it was released. The New York Times and Roger Ebert both raved about its ambition and sophisticated humor. It’s surprising, then, that I felt so underwhelmed. Thinking about it objectively, it’s hard to imagine not loving a sweeping, gorgeous movie filled with mostly-funny jokes and winking references to everything from the Marx Brothers to Leo Tolstoy. Ambitious comedies that aim high without sacrificing sheer hilarity are the rarest and most enjoyable movies. I think the problem is that I am spoiled. For one thing, unlike most movie critics, I don’t have to sit through every crappy comedy that comes out in a year, most of which make something like Love and Death look much better by comparison. Secondly, the viewing context in which I’m watching is unfair — Sleeper came out two years before Love and Death, but I watched them both on one weekend. Such vastly superior films as Manhattan and Stardust Memories didn’t exist yet, but I’ve seen them both many times.

According to IMDb, “Allen claims that of all the movies he’s done, this is his favorite and most personal.” I’ve read numerous interviews where he has discussed his favorite movies, and I don’t remember him ever mentioning Love and Death, but I’m sure that was true in 1975. This movie, far more than anything he’s made previously, is filled with the things he loves. It may not be the funniest, or the best, but of all the early films, it’s the most prescient, and best represents what a Woody Allen movie is. Every Woody Allen movie is someone’s favorite Woody Allen movie, and it’s easy to imagine some people — those more literarily inclined than me, for example — truly cherishing Love and Death. I loved Sleeper, and I loved Take the Money and Run. Love and Death isn’t a step backwards in any sense, but after seeing those two first, it’s a little familiar and a little disappointing.

Memorable Woodyisms

  • “You are a great lover.”
    “Thanks. I practice a lot when I’m alone.”
  • “Sex without love is an empty experience.”
    “Yes, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.”
  • “Then, one day, at the height of my well-being, for no apparent reason I was seized with an urge to commit suicide.”
  • “I eventually grew into full manhood. Well, not full, I was only 5’6, which is not technically a full man in Russia, although you can still own property.”
  • “There are many different types of love, Boris. Love between a man and a woman, love between a mother and a son...”
    “Love between two women, let’s not forget my favorite.”
  • “This fool thinks that serfs should run the country. Why not the criminal elements... or the Jews?”
    “Hey, some Jews are smart, although I hear their women don’t believe in sex after marriage.”

Fun Facts

  • This is the last film until 1996 that Woody Allen would make outside of New York.
  • While filming in Eastern Europe, Allen (a famous hypochondriac) was so terrified of dysentery that he ate only canned foods.
  • In GoldenEye (Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond film), Alan Cumming’s character has the same name as Woody Allen’s in this movie (Boris Grushenko). Probably a coincidence.
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