The fourth film of the Woody Allen collection is his take on the great Russian novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Into the usual mix of life, love and finding a local deli that will deliver we have a tale that takes the intricacies of pre revolutionary Russian society and one man’s journey through life leading to his ultimate demise.
Boris (Woody Allen) is a troubled young man. Slightly different to his brothers, in that he is a dweeb, he holds deep philosophical conversations with the beautiful Sonia (Diane Keaton) in the hope of getting a bit of lying down time with her. Alas she has set her sights slightly higher than his five foot six stature. War with France interrupts the courtship and Boris in a bizarre twist finds himself enlisted in the army where he trains to fight on the battlefield against the nations sworn foe. In a twist of fate Boris is lauded as a war hero after the cannon he accidentally hides in fires him into the French camp, killing their generals. With his new status he travels to Moscow on leave. Once more he meets the love of his life and the chase for her affections begin again in earnest.
This is something of a departure for Woody. Moving away from the previous absurdist, slapstick films he incorporates his admiration for the great novelists and his love of the films of Bergman into his mix of humour. The product is something, that up to that point in his career, is unique. It was a bold move and quite possibly carried a risk of alienating his audience. The onscreen relationship between Allen and Keaton is more solid in this film. It is clear that they have an excellent working relationship that has strengthened through hard work and shared experience.
This is the most mature piece of work from Woody up to this point in his career. The jokes and set pieces are, on the whole, very funny and consistent in their quality.The writing is witty, sharp and with a degree of quality control missing from previous films. It is a sign of a maturing film maker that they can self criticise in order to improve. Setting the film in Imperialist Russia adds another dimension to the piece. It provides the back drop to highlight the serious issues of war and national identity that were taking place at the time and layers very well under the modern New York neurosis of Allen and company. The ever-present theme of death which is referenced throughout Woody’s career is taken to its logical conclusion here when Boris meets the Grim Reaper on a couple of occasions. This gives a new scope for witty remarks about death and another pointed reference to the film work of Ingmar Bergman.
In a move away from the usual swing and Jazz music score we are treated to something more fitting for the period setting. The soundtrack here is provided by the music of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. This lends an authentic and very fitting addition to the film. A Jazz score would have seemed out-of-place with the visuals of the (pretend) Russian landscape in winter.
It is interesting to note that the slapstick elements of the early Allen films is again toned down. There are a few sequences where a purely visual gag is appropriate. The montage scene of Boris dealing with army basic training is a great example of where this type of humour works very well. Other than that sequence the film is notable for its lack of over the top slapstick. This is an indication of the direction he was taking his writing and his films.
Love and Death represents a turning point in the film career of Woody Allen. His style of directing, screen writing and acting have developed to a point where he is comfortable in taking on more technically and artistically ambitious projects. With Hindsight we can see that his progress to date was impressive and would lead to him attaining another level with the projects that would follow.
Overall another entertaining and very funny film form an artist reaching the top of his game. Recommended.