. . . because they’re always a pleasure and so telling about the state of American culture in all its permutations and variety. Spoiler alert.
Woody Allen’s latest has been heralded as his return to form, after a series of films that made little impression on the zeitgeist. This one breaks his stride, however, by relocating his preoccupations to London, in a story about a working class tennis pro (Chris, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who befriends a man (Tom) from a hugely wealthy British family, insinuates himself into their circle, and eventually marries Tom’s sister (Chloe), all the while lusting after the American actress (Nola, played by Scarlett Johansson) who for a time is engaged to Tom. When Chris and Nola consummate their affair, he becomes obsessed with having her and jeopardizes the privilege he’s acquiring by association with his newfound friends.
Allen tells a good story. The narrative moves well and is filled with remarkably natural, even improvised-sounding dialogue that overlaps and repeats and intermingles in the messy, abrupt way that mirrors how we talk to each other. Such freely formed speeches make the characters sound real, and yet their actions are difficult to believe. The plot, as some critics have pointed out, resembles A Place in the Sun, which tells a similar story of a young man torn between the privilege he desires and the woman he truly loves. But in Allen’s retelling, it’s not clear that Chris really has the capacity to love anyone, not even himself.
As a result, the film’s central moral dilemma is hollow and unpersuasive. When Chris is quickly promoted through his father-in-law’s business, he doesn’t seem pleased or satisfied with his success, preoccupied as he is with his affair with Nola. At the same time, while Chris seems genuinely fond of Chloe, he’s almost too compliant with her increasingly strident demands that he have sex with her so that they can produce a child. Allen means him to be torn by relationships, but instead, the film observes him being torn only by circumstance.
For instance, when Nola inadvertently becomes pregnant (even though it’s Chris and Chloe who are trying frantically to conceive), she instantly retires her sultry seductiveness and becomes a needy, shrewish “other woman,” desperate for Chris to tell Chloe about their affair and for him to leave his wife. All the nuance of her character before the pregnancy vanishes; she morphs from a melancholy, slightly mysterious figure with a great deal of allure into an ordinary complaining, almost-wife who drags on Chris’s energy and attention.
While the film does indeed carry spectators along in its suspense, I found the choice of violence to free Chris from Nola predictable and kind of reprehensible. Here’s another story so familiar it’s practically mythological: the husband who needs to get rid of either his wife or his mistress so that he can maintain the appearance of sexual and financial success and “have it all.” (Why aren’t men excoriated for that desire, the way women are?) Once Chris kills Nola, setting up the murder so that it looks like a drug-related robbery that she unfortunately interrupts, we see him sweating and crying and unable to sleep, as though these performances of a conscience are enough to persuade us that his anguish is ethical or real.
Perhaps even Allen doesn’t trust his script. He interrupts the final third of the action with a “dream” sequence styled straight out of his earlier, more familiarly New York “kvetch” movies (or out of the mainstream chestnut, Ghosts): Chris hears noises in the night and enters his kitchen to find the ghosts of Nola and her neighbor (whom he also killed, in what he calls “collateral damage”) berating him for what he did to them. He tries to rationalize his actions, quoting Sophocles (of all things) and explaining in that anachronistically erudite, contemplative, ironic style of Allen’s films why he did what he did. This eruption into meta-narrative exposition is clumsy and out of place, even as a stylistic flourish. When this scene jump-cuts into a shot of the detective who suspects Chris bolting awake in bed claiming he knows that Chris did it, Allen’s hand becomes heavy indeed.
But because Chris is “lucky”—an emblem of the capriciousness of fate that Allen stresses throughout the script, from the opening shot, in which a tennis ball balances on top of a net, poised to drop to the opponent’s side or fall on Chris’s own—Chris gets away with the murder and is left to stew in the soup of his own guilt. But finally relieved from the narrative suspense of wanting to know what happens (and after a few unusually false endings), I found myself completely unmoved and perplexed by what I found an utterly predictable, conventional piece of work.
Not to mention its gender implications. Chloe is the vaguely insipid, innocent wife, who can’t see the betrayal that’s right in front of her; Nola is the failed actress who her rich former friends eventually label as “hard” and possibly a prostitute, reinstating the (very) old equation of women who perform on the stage as whores. Rather than somehow letting her revel in her unconventional, deeply physical sexuality (she and Chris first have sex outside in a field, during a driving rain), Allen’s narrative choice to make Nola pregnant reduces her not just to the “other woman,” but to the would-be other wife/mother, implying that mother or whore are (still) the only choices women have.
Tom’s family—whose too British prattling about business and horses and socializing provides the backdrop for Chris’s adventures—chatter incessantly about reproduction. Even though Tom and his wife (the more appropriate woman he marries instead of Nola) are pregnant at the alter, Tom and Chloe’s mother keeps badgering Chloe to get pregnant, as though she’s not fully part of the human race unless she’s reproducing it. “Family,” in this movie, is both empty and hegemonic, absolutely central to a social process that’s ultimately bankrupt even for the captain of industry Chris becomes. Allen doesn’t seem to be indicting the family, however, so much as promulgating these shopworn values.
Chris is the anti-hero, the one who suffers from his violent determination to hold on to his hard-won, newly privileged social position at all costs. Chris is the one who’s killed his child by his mistress. Chris is the one who, because he’s always been different, will finally never belong to this club of superficiality and wealth to which who would want to belong anyway?
Well over two hours later, I come away saying, “So what?” And shouldn’t we expect more than that?
The Feminist Spectator