Love and Death (1975)

Woody Allen | 1hr 25min

Two years before Woody Allen left his immortal mark on the romantic-comedy genre with Annie Hall, he pushed another set of narrative and film conventions in Love and Death. Early 19th century Russia is his chosen setting, and those great Russian novels by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are his inspiration, but this is no insipidly self-serious period piece. Anachronisms abound here, as playfully irreverent as they are pointed in their satire, targeting the quaint pretensions of this era with rapid-fire repartee and a good deal of meta-humour.

Subjects of enormous weight treated with such hilarious flippancy, as Boris apathetically goes to commit suicide and then decides against it when he is already hanging.
Anachronisms everywhere – Love and Death pushes narrative and formal boundaries in every scene.

Allen continues the trend of starring in his work in Love and Death, playing the part of a Russian literary protagonist reluctant to take part in his war-bound destiny. Boris Grushenko might as well stand in for Allen himself in all his contemporary sensibilities, as he gleefully belittles those around him while suffering the consequences of his own hubris. The Groucho Marx influence on his work has always been evident, but rarely has it been so palpable as it is here in one of his earliest films, when in the most dire of circumstances of being challenged to a duel he continues rattling off quips with all the speed and impudence of a man who possesses both great intellect and great ego, and can’t help letting both show.

“My seconds will call on your seconds.”

“Well, my seconds will be out, let them call on my thirds. If my thirds are out, go directly to my fourths.”

Quite unusually for Allen, slapstick rules alongside verbal wit in Love and Death, though once again such a smooth integration of both high and lowbrow humour comes back to his love for the Marx Brothers. A sophisticated conversation over moral imperatives is deflated in an instant when Boris and his wife, Sonja, pause mid-way to hit an unconscious Napoleon Bonaparte on the head with a wine bottle, underscoring the incongruency between the lofty philosophical questions and life-or-death scenarios often presented side-by-side in Russian literature.

A sly reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in the editing and imagery, with a cheeky visual metaphor thrown in there for good measure.

Even as Love and Death is drenched in jokes and references to classic novels, Allen’s focus remains on the cinematic applications of his satirical commentary, further building out his movie into a pastiche of European arthouse films. The montage editing of a battle deliberately evokes the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin right down to a shot of broken spectacles, though when Allen cuts to the view of the war from the general’s perspective he amusingly slips in a shot of sheep running together in a flock. Meanwhile, a white cloaked figure representing Death acts a direct allusion to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, even as its austere presence is undercut by Boris’ flippancy, considering his own mortality as little more than an inconvenience.

“Boris! What happened?”

“I got screwed.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Some vision came and said that I was gonna get pardoned, and then they shot me.”

“You were my one great love.”

“Oh thank you very much, I appreciate that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m dead.”

In his fourth wall breaking voiceovers and facetiously subversive attitude, Allen smashes through cultural, narrative, and cinematic convention, fashioning an entirely new kind of artistic statement out of the fragments left behind. Though there is a cerebral and ironic detachment in his attacks upon old-fashioned ideals, it does not possess the sort of savagery that he reserves for his own self-criticisms. Ultimately, it is in that combination of the two where Love and Death reveals itself to be just as much a pointed comment on the way haughty academics and artists interpret history as it is a critique of the foibles of history itself, all the while wryly refusing to take itself seriously on any level.

Dancing off into the distance with the white cloaked figure of Death – an irreverent play on The Seventh Seal.

Love and Death is available to rent or buy on iTunes, Youtube, and Google Play.

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