I make the claim for Love and Death as Woody Allen’s funniest movie fully aware of all the issues tangled up in that assessment. On a personal level, it was one of the first four Allen movies I saw, which remain my four favorites (Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors being the others). There are still a couple dozen I haven’t seen, and every year or so a new one gets added to that list. But as received wisdom would have it, Allen has moved away from the absurd heights of his first films into a more refined groove, churning out talky comedy-dramas with varying degrees of emphasis on the laughs. Love and Death was the last of the “early, funny ones,” a culmination and a turning point in the director’s lifetime pursuit of laying bare his psyche onscreen. His next movie, Annie Hall, won Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars. Those earlier, rougher, unhyphenated (no real drama or romance to speak of) films possess the purity and the fiendish invention of a Marx brothers movie. As with his predecessors, the feverish lunging for laughs can sometimes turn out brilliantly, but often only works sporadically. Love and Death, like Bananas or Sleeper, is not without its whiffs, but upon revisiting it this week I found that it still made me laugh more than almost anything else I’ve ever seen.
The sturdy foundation on which this film is built is dialectic in nature. Allen’s career has been noted for its intellectual pretensions, and he could hardly have chosen more rarefied targets for lampooning than the ones he does here: Russian literature and Ingmar Bergman films. Possibly taking inspiration from Luis Buñuel’s most recent films, Allen played fast and loose with the somber, ritualized worlds of politics and religion, jabbing sacred cows in their plump ribs. At the same time, there’s a strong undercurrent of self-deflation. Rather than try to mount a detailed subversion of established wisdom, Allen takes the Marx brothers/Looney Tunes approach of all-purpose hell-raising. With his co-star, Diane Keaton, he blithely offers up philosophical word salad in response to life’s big questions. The Napoleonic Wars are staged as a perfect absurdity, a bellicose void. A satirical cinematic metaphor involving a flock of sheep sits alongside a featherweight gag with a peanut vendor on the battlefield. Allen’s character, a “militant coward,” acknowledges the futility of the bloodshed, but mostly he’s just afraid of getting shot.
This combination, rather than being duplicitous, works out into an overall experience that can make the audience feel smarter. Case in point: I fell in love with this movie long before I’d ever seen a Bergman film or read much of any Tolstoy. It’s possible to recognize a conversation late in the film as consisting of Dostoyevsky titles without understanding why that choice was made. The provenance of repeated faux-rapturous references to wheat still mostly goes over my head, but if this were somehow a preemptive spoof of Terrence Malick movies, would it be less funny? To be sure, context can always broaden one’s appreciation. After watching Bergman’s “Silence” trilogy this month, I found Allen’s flip distillation of religious anxiety immensely cathartic. (e.g. “If only God would give me some sign. If He would just speak to me once. Anything. One sentence. Two words. If He would just cough.”) This is one of comedy’s greatest strengths: the democratization of humanity’s most refined inquiries. Sitting through some of Bergman’s more oppressive films can require some effort, but absurd comedy feels effortless. As a banner in the film so succinctly puts it, “Welcome Idiots.”
The push-and-pull between self-deprecation and ego-stroking also applies to Allen’s other favorite topic, sex. The director has always been willing to exploit his height, his neurotic and depressive personality, and his thick glasses for their comic potential. But at the same time, his characters, such as Boris in this film, can still have a fine time with beautiful women. This is wish-fulfillment, but it’s also of a piece with the film’s satiric targets. The other men in the film, loyal soldiers and jealous husbands — all of them one-dimensional and basically humorless — espouse the usual antebellum braggadocio and macho contempt to cartoonish excess. With his fourth-wall-breaking commentary on the events of the film, Boris stands above all of them intellectually. His only equal is the woman for whom he pines, Diane Keaton’s Sonja. Given the reprehensible stories about Allen’s personal life that have circulated over the years, many of his jokes about sex can leave a bitter aftertaste. But the agency of Keaton’s characters in this and other films works to counteract that. Her impeccable delivery of some of Allen’s best laugh lines is matched by her dexterity with physical humor — crushing a wine glass in her hand during the “tense” early days of Sonja and Boris’s marriage, for example. A late plot development, in which Sonja goads Boris into an assassination attempt, adds a satisfying twist to the question of virility. When Boris struggles to put the parts of his gun together, and then fails to shoot, the symbolism is easy to spot.
Like Buñuel’s The Milky Way, Allen’s early films trade on provocation for its own sake. They luxuriate in the fun of goofing around with ideas so often treated with sepulchral sobriety. The tyrant, whether it’s Groucho Marx’s Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup or James Tolkan’s Napoleon here, is really just a self-centered hedonist. Rather than obsessing over how to break the Russian army, this Napoleon fixates on having a pastry named after him and starts fighting his decoy while teaching him to mimic the emperor’s walk. Love and Death is something of a pivot point in the way that it lashes its scatterbrained gags to personal expression. Allen’s politics, his innermost obsessions and concerns are all laid out with consistency. He would continue to allude to Bergman in future films, but not at all in the same carefree way. What makes Love and Death distinctive is how it offers so much autobiographical material while still being an object of pure comedy. That’s the ideal balance, as I see it: committed to getting as many laughs as possible, but still telling a story with some meat on its bones.