Love and Death (Woody Allen / U.S., 1975):

A culmination and a transition, refining the spray-gun approach of Sleeper en route to Annie Hall, and, like Twain's The Innocents Abroad or Jones' What's Opera, Doc?, an act of artistic debunking that reassures the importance of art. Woody Allen meets Dostoyevsky, and the two compare misanthropic views: The world is a "big restaurant," God is an "underachiever" at best, "subjectivity is objective," etc. The Napoleonic Wars provide the canvas, 19th-century "militant coward" Allen enlists reluctantly ("What good is war? We kill a few Frenchmen, they kill a few Russians, next thing you know, it's Easter"); a black drill sergeant bawls him out ("Goddamn, you love Russia, doncha!") and a tableau of bodies welcomes him, yet he saves the day by seizing the cannon from The Great Dictator's opening. Allen's beloved, "half saint and half whore" Diane Keaton, meanwhile exercises the whore half by taking on lovers as the elderly husband retires to his bedroom carrying a herring. The plot is Tolstoy by way of Bob Hope, with enough room for Mozart and Prokofiev, Eisenstein's stone lions, pistols at dawn with Harold Gould, musings on the word "jejune" -- the beauty of Ghislain Cloquet's cinematography is part of the joke. Beauty can scarcely soothe the soul of a whiner, however, so Allen gets the noose ready, changing his mind at the last minute to take up poetry and, later, revolutionary assassination. Other flashes of sublimity include Napoleon (James Tolkan) demanding more cream for the pastry that is to bear his name, and the divine presence that promises protection but pussies out at the moment of the execution. ("I got screwed," the hero complains, standing next to Bergman's Grim Reaper.) Jean Renoir called it "incredibly cinematic," which means he recognized the La Règle du Jeu gag with the two Napoleons wrestling in the back of the frame. With Olga Georges-Picot, Henry Czarniak, Féodor Atkine, Sol Frieder, Lloyd Battista, Howard Vernon, and Alfred Lutter.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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