Lou de Laâge, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Schneider, Elsa Zylberstein, Anna LAik
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It wouldn’t be fair to say that Allen is just dialling it in, but you really feel he could have made us care more.
Woody Allen. Just the name is enough to divide opinions. Such is the hazard of a long career perhaps. In an age of cancellation and trial by social media, it becomes impossible not to see his work today partly through the lens of how he is now regarded. In fact, to see your way ‘through’ to the work as it is might be regarded by some as some form of excusing or colluding. Critics beware.
Nonetheless, Allen deserves a place in cinema history (there are great works in his oeuvre), and he is nothing if not productive. Allen has made around 50 films in a 58-year career. He does this partly through being able to do a lot of the roles himself (writing, directing etc.), but also because he keeps his set ups simple, and lets the dialogue be mostly conversational, and he (usually) trusts his actors. Often, he chooses beautiful European locations and lets the travelogue elements provide visual allure.
This one, from its basic black and white credits to a repetitive jazz score falls into a familiar pattern. It is set in Paris (it’s not easy getting his films made in America anymore), and he uses all the elements of French chic that he can muster. It is very much a romanticised American view of the city of course, there is no grit or social realism about it at all, which accounts for the film feeling slight and even a bit sketchy at times. There is also a sort of half-arsed crime caper element but that too is not particularly deftly handled.
The film centres on Jean (Melvil Poupaud) and Fanny (Lou de Laâge), a ‘perfect’ couple who live in a to-die-for French house and whose lives are dripping with style. Jean is a bit bland, however. Despite the fact that he mostly dotes on his gorgeous wife, she is not happy. He is also a little controlling and apt to joke about her being a trophy. So, when she meets the more bohemian ex-schoolfriend Alain (Niels Schneider), she slides guiltily into an affair. This too is done in a very ‘French’ way. Alain rents a fabulous little loft, and the lovers meet there regularly for their tryst.
There’s no on-screen sex though as, interestingly, Allen doesn’t really do that in his films. For him, it is all about ‘romance’ and nothing as gritty as actual sex can intrude. Of course, the idea of a pretty wife cheating on a boring rich husband and then coming to a sticky end is very Madame Bovary and Allen perhaps relies on that allusion to make the audience feel they can understand and appreciate both the motivations and the morals on display. This is part of the problem, however. Though the actors are very watchable, it’s hard to really like these privileged creations or invest in their fate.
When the film lurches into some comic crime elements we are not at risk of really caring about them as flesh and blood humans. In one of his masterworks, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Allen used psychological and philosophical depth to draw us into a deep engagement with troubling ideas such as bad actions going unpunished. This is a very different sort of exercise, of course, but its shallowness, however deliberate, really counts against it. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Allen is just dialling it in, but you really feel he could have made us care more.