Wednesday, Sep. 22, 2010

Cannes: Woody Allen Meets A Tall Dark Stranger

Forty-one years as a writer-director, 39 features at a rate of a film every year for the past two decades even as he has approached a seniority (he'll be 75 in December) when a slower pace or retirement might be an option — Woody Allen has a remarkable filmography by measure of perseverance alone.

But the scale of his achievement is far greater, since Allen has made only original scripts (occasionally written with a partner, usually on his own) — and because long ago, first as a stand-up comedian and then as a moviemaker, he charted his own universe. Glib urban professionals, often more self-conscious than self-aware, stumble through Manhattan, their egos colliding as if in a Coney Island bumper-car ride. For decades, Allen the actor was the confused creature at its center, an analysand in Wonderland crying out for love but unable to realize it when it came his way or hold on to it when he had it. That was agony for the Woody male, fun for audiences observing his crises from the safe border of the other side of the screen. As Allen himself has probably said, tragedy is what happens to you; comedy is what happens to someone else.

Advancing age has removed Allen from his familiar place on screen. Just once in the past seven years has he appeared in his own picture. ("For years I played the romantic lead," he said at today's press conference. "Then I got too old.") And the exigencies of movie finance have sent this boutique filmmaker abroad for backing and locations; this New Yorkiest of auteurs has become a rootless cosmopolitan. Of his latest six films, he shot only one, Whatever Works, in New York. He went to Spain for Vicky Cristina Barcelona and to England for the other four: Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra's Dream and now You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. (Oddly, he's never directed a film in France, where he is revered by critics and was awarded the Légion d'honneur.) The new film takes place a few miles away from the setting of Mike Leigh's new movie, and in a social class in which most people have money — if they do what the moneyed people want.

Four folks in one family fall out of one relationship and leap headlong into another. Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has left Helena (Gemma Jones), his wife of 40 years, for a 20-something blond "actress," a.k.a. call girl, Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Helena, under the spell of a spiritualist, finds a kindred soul in Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths). Alfie and Helena's daughter Sally (Naomi Watts), who works in an art gallery, is infatuated with the gallery's owner Greg (Antonio Banderas). And Sally's husband Roy (Josh Brolin), a novelist agonizing over the reception of his latest manuscript — someone calls him "a member of the Formerly Promising Club" — becomes entranced by Dia (Freida Pinto), a lovely young woman he sees in a window across the courtyard.

From this outline you will notice a standard Allen roundelay: people obsessed with love but, with a short emotional attention span, seeking the one person they think will solve their problems. It's a plot inspired by Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer's Night, with naive amour in the air and cynical friends quick to point out the absurdity of the chase. Says Sally of the randy Charmaine: "The only acting she's good at is faking an orgasm." In the Allen fashion, ardor soon dissipates into a reality as poignant and funny as it is embarrassing: Charmaine wants to have sex with her sexagenarian beau, but Alfie asks her to wait a few minutes until the Viagra kicks in.

Another Allen fixation is death, as personified in Bergman's The Seventh Seal; here Sally tells her mother, "I fear that you will meet the tall, dark stranger we'll all meet." Helena finds that her new love is still attached to his dead wife and observes ruefully, "I lost him to another woman, a deceased one ... They're often the stiffest competition." At the press conference, the director said, "My relationship with death is the same. I'm strongly against it."

The movie is easy to take and perceptive in men's desires for things they can't have. When Roy moves out of Sally's place and into Dia's apartment, he then looks longingly at the new woman in the window: his estranged wife. But Tall Dark Stranger, like Another Year, shows a top film artist in a holding pattern. For those who find this minor Woody, no need to fret long. He's already at work on his next film, and this time there will be a French connection. Among his stars is Carla Bruni, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. That relationship should make for a piquant group photo on Cannes' red carpet next year.

TIME's Richard Corliss reviewed You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger from Cannes on May 15, 2010; the movie opens in the U.S. Sept. 22.