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A History of Reference: Woody Allen’s “Match Point”

A History of Reference: Woody Allen's "Match Point"

There are those who will take the opportunity to elevate “Match Point” to instant classic status and those who will damn it with faint praise — yet both will do so by saying the same thing: “Woody Allen’s best in years!” Never mind that Allen stands utterly alone in output quantity, and that approximately the same amount of time has elapsed between “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World” and Woody’s last very good film (“Sweet and Lowdown”) and his latest very good film. There have become simply too many expectations surrounding each release — Woody Allen diehards, who feel a harsh jab to the heart every time another “Jade Scorpion” or “Hollywood Ending” disappoints and refuels his detractors, have become his toughest critics of all. And the oft-heard post “Interiors” mantra — “Why can’t he get back to doing the early, funny ones?” — has been replaced in recent years by the moan “Why can’t he get back to doing the serious ones?”

Who would have thought it, but nostalgia for Woody Allen’s mid-period chamber dramas (at the time depreciated by nostalgia for his stream-of-conscious slapsticks like “Bananas” and “Love and Death“) has resulted in a general critical embrace of “Match Point.” Some have even gone so far as to call it unique in all of the Woody oeuvre: crisper, leaner narrative, striking sexual electricity, refreshing London setting. Truly, the film is something of a small marvel, as it features some of the most fluid, classical Hollywood storytelling seen in some years, yet it is also ineluctably, satisfyingly, condemningly Woody, mammoth in philosophical cynicism, miniscule in presentation. There are shards of “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” perhaps a touch of “Zelig” and a taste of “Alice.” And of course, as a result, Woody dredges up an entire history of referents, from Dostoevsky to Dreiser, the latter by way of George Stevens’s adaptation “A Place in the Sun,” which is directly quoted in the introduction of Scarlett Johansson‘s Nola Rice, spotted playing (not pool but) ping-pong from the hallway of a luxurious home by its slithery protagonist, Chris Wilton (a wonderfully self-effacing Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).

As necessary as it is to blurt out Woody’s spiritual mentors, borrowings, and homages, it’s even more essential to place them aside. For “Match Point” is no mere rehash, and to say so is to give credence to the legions of Woody detractors who would invalidate the career of this most important of American filmmakers. Only high-minded critics, drowning in years of Bergman and Fellini, would deny the importance of Woody’s 30-year project, to integrate established foreign modes of cinema into the American vernacular, especially quite a few years after the influence of international films reached its trendy zenith with the New Hollywood. Woody simply never quit, less a recycler than a reappropriator, and “Match Point” displays a masterful wit, craft, and intelligence; the way Woody manipulates character identification through slightly shifted mise-en-scene or clever cutting is nothing less than Claude Chabrolian (“Match Point”‘s arc has something of Chabrol’s “La Ceremonie” in it), and there’s even a touch of Patricia Highsmith to add to the pile.

Yet overstuffed it isn’t, and the trajectory here is Woody Allen’s most streamlined and elegant since “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Even many of his greatest works tend to be episodic (“Radio Days“), have purposely sputtering, rambling narratives (“Husbands and Wives,” ‘Everyone Says I Love You”), or seem like foreign-film starter kits (“Another Woman“). His classicist class-dissection story–of an unassuming social climber (Rhys-Meyers) in contemporary London who worms his way into an aristocratic family, marrying daughter Chloe (that preeminent, great invisible actor Emily Mortimer) while maintaining a torrid affair with his brother-in-law’s ex-girlfriend (Johansson) — may not be full of social revelations, but it’s quite welcome after the dumbfounding anachronisms of “Melinda and Melinda”‘s pathetic boho-bourgeois. To succumb to this type of insinuating schemer storyline has freed Woody Allen up to revel in a traditional mode of Hollywood filmmaking that he has admired his whole life; and it also gives him a chance, along with his stellar DP, Remi Adefarasin (who shot that supreme model of period unadornment, “The House of Mirth”), to look at his environs in new ways–the world here is seductively framed, bringing out the muted passions equally in both a misty, rain-soaked wheatfield and the textured, sensual lips and narrow stares of Rhys-Meyers and Johansson, both of whose angular features can turn from cherub to devil in the wink of an eye.

Atheist though Woody Allen may be, his “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (for my money, Woody Allen’s greatest, most revealing, and therefore most terrifying movie) was deeply spiritual; by placing morality as a firmly earthbound concept, it created a dialogue that engaged more directly with religion, through doubt, than any of his other films. “Match Point,” which often recalls “Crimes,” is more resolutely secular — perhaps it plumbs the depths of existential fictions rather than its filmmaker’s own guilt. “Crimes” was expansive; it seemed to encompass all the world in its amoral nighttime. “Match Point,” though it may similarly revel in crime and forms of punishment, is intimate; it is obsessed with chance and circumstance, and stays firmly in place — London, which feels more insular than any of the director’s Manhattan portraits. “Match Point” isn’t Jewish, isn’t spiritual, its twists are predicated less on choice than on utter chaos, and its protagonist’s transgressions don’t have the infinite oomph that made “Crimes and Misdemeanors” into such a piercing wail. (If “Crimes” was finally cosmic, “Match Point” is ultimately cosmetic.) Yet Woody remains resolute in his need to dissect how rationality and evil function in a Godless world.

In everyone’s incessant bashing of Woody Allen’s recent works, it’s often ignored just how dark his films have remained, and how much further down into the cavities of his own self-loathing he’s burrowed, even in supposedly “lighter” fare like “Anything Else.” That film, with its defiantly hateful, shrill characterizations, was nearly unwatchable, but at the same time edifying: the Woody persona had become so shriveled and paranoid, that his tendencies finally emerged as literally homicidal. So, Woody hasn’t really been gone, and his dark-hued “Match Point” isn’t really a comeback — he’s been hanging around all along, lurking.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as an editor at Interview magazine and contributor to Film Comment.]

Matthew Goode and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in Woody Allen’s “Match Point”. Photo by Dreamworks

Take 2
By Neal Block

It seems almost too ironic that this film about infidelity finds Woody Allen cheating on Manhattan with its snooty older sister, London. There’s something missing in “Match Point”‘s clean British setting, something that makes the film at first feel un-Woody-like (even more so than the Allen-obscuring marketing campaign). Very possibly it’s the absence of Jews, but just below the surface, it’s clear he’s merely traded upper-middle-class Jewish guilt and philandering for upper-class English guilt and philandering. What’s the difference, outside of a few jokes? “Match Point” dredges up the great Woody Allen connection between Jew = comedy and gentile = drama, the psychological reasoning of which would require far more than I could explain or even introduce in the limited space here.

For many years, Woody Allen has claimed that he’s never been satisfied with any film he’s ever made, and that one day he strives to make a film that could stand up alongside a work by Bergman or Fellini. It’s a public bit of self-loathing that fits so perfectly into the character Woody’s created for himself over his half-century career that its essential wrongness is beside the point–that he’s already done it with “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and a handful of earlier films doesn’t make Allen feel any better about himself. With “Match Point,” he comes as close to his perpetual, personally unreachable goal as he has since “Crimes,” two decades ago, and with subject matter that explores similar reactions to similar provocations. While “Match Point” does not dissect emotions with the fervor of its predecessor, its thesis about the relationship between romantic love and violent narcissism is perfectly delivered by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Scarlett Johansson’s romantic narcissists. “Match Point” feels like it could be a great, revitalizing turn-around for Allen, after a few years on shaky ground.

[Neal Block is a co-founder of Reverse Shot, and a contributing editor of neumu.com. He currently works as Director of Distribution at Palm Pictures.]

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen’s “Match Point”. Photo by Dreamworks

Take 3
By Chris Wisniewski

Even his most vociferous defenders (or apologists) would be hard-pressed to champion Woody Allen for his originality, and though it’s ungenerous, it’s also fair to say that Allen’s made a career of recycling the work of better thinkers and artists, from Nietzsche and Bergman to the Marx brothers. His new drama “Match Point” has been hailed alternately as a decisive break and a return-to-form, and in this case, both descriptions are accurate enough. Allen’s ditched his native New York for London, leaving behind any trace of his incisive comic wit. But let there be no mistake about it: “Match Point” is a straight-up retread of “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” importing that film’s Dostoyevsky-inspired plotting wholesale, while infusing it with a bit of opera and a half-baked tennis allusion for good measure. It’s Woody Allen doing Woody Allen doing Dostoyevsky. Original it’s not, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work.

Like any Woody Allen film, “Match Point” is an embarrassment of acting riches: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Scarlett Johansson bring a seductive and intoxicatingly youthful sexuality to their adulterous social climbers without ever losing sight of the repulsive selfishness upon which this morality play hinges, and the modest turns by Emily Mortimer, Brian Cox, and Penelope Wilton fill things out while never distracting from the main bill. Performances alone do not a good film make, though, as Allen himself can probably attest (after all, he’s always been a fine director of actors, perhaps the best in contemporary American cinema, even when he’s turned out total dreck). Oddly enough, “Match Point” is distinguished largely by Allen’s workmanlike filmmaking. The visuals are strictly by the numbers and the writing unassuming, though razor-sharp. Allen doesn’t try too hard–as he has with far too many of his recent films–though the final act is dominated by an achingly suspenseful and surprisingly lengthy and elaborate set-piece. For all its operatic grandeur, the film isn’t very operatic, and it aspires to novelistic texture without really being novelistic. “Match Point” may well be too derivative, schematic, and slight to be great art, but at least it’s one hell of a movie.

[Chris Wisniewski is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and has also written for Interview and Publishers Weekly.]

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