Directed by: Woody Allen | 85 minutes | comedy, war | Actors: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Georges Adet, Frank Adu, Edmond Ardisson, Féodor Atkine, Albert Augier, Yves Barsacq, Lloyd Battista, Jack Berard, Eva Betrand, George Birt
Although Woody Allen’s style often stands out like this, his extensive oeuvre has many faces. Perhaps the greatest contrast between two Woody Allen films released one after the other is that between Love and Death (1975) and Annie Hall (1977). Allen started out as a writer of newspaper jokes (he was only fifteen at the time) and punchlines for comedians, before starting to make a living as a stand-up comedian. He was then approached to write a screenplay. His first work is characterized by many “straightforward” jokes; titles like “What’s New Pussycat” (1965) and “Bananas” (1971) actually speak for themselves. From “Annie Hall” – the film that is in fact regarded as his very best work and which proved to be an inspiration to many filmmakers after him – Woody Allen’s films became much more “narrative”. It is still funny, but the humor is now hidden a bit deeper in the dialogues. “Love and Death” is the last film to be counted among Allen’s old work. But although the jokes are turned on nice and thick, this film is certainly intelligently put together.
Love and Death is a satire on the famous Russian literature. Allen himself plays the lead, together with his muse (and lover) of the time, Diane Keaton. The film is set at the beginning of the nineteenth century. When Napoleon (James Tolkan) invades Austria, the cowardly pacifist student Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen) is forced to enlist in the Russian army. Disappointed in love, Boris becomes a war hero against his will when he imprisons a group of French officers. However, the French army proves to be too strong and is approaching Moscow. When Boris returns from the front line, he marries widow Sonja (Diane Keaton). He thinks that with the arrival of Napoleon to the Russian capital, the war will end. But his young, ambitious wife thinks otherwise; she comes up with a plan to kill Napoleon and drags Boris – again completely against his will – into her trap.
Allen turned “Love and Death” into one big ode to his heroes. The story and dialogues, for example, are strongly inspired by the great Russian writers Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (just take the title, ‘Love and Death’, which can easily be classified as ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘War and Peace’ – two undeniable highlights. from Russian literature – fits). But the humor in the film is a big nod to The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin and Bob Hope. Incidentally, not all humor in this film is straightforward, it also contains more subtle references to classic literature and highlights from (European) film history. For example, here too Allen does not hide his admiration for the illustrious Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Because Allen combines the fairly heavy fare of war, peace and death with light-footed slapstick, this film looks away easily.
Incidentally, not everything works out equally well; Boris and Sonja’s endless philosophy between battles is getting on the nerves more and more and the village idiot Berdykov (Percival Russel) is really not funny for a moment. And there are more “just not” moments in this film. However, Allen also offers a lot of fun in return, especially at the beginning of the film. And especially if you know the cultural references, “Love and Death” offers a lot of extra viewing pleasure. Admittedly, we prefer the Woody Allen who doesn’t necessarily rely on visual jokes and slapstick. The Woody Allen as in “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan” (1979) and “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986); that is how we prefer to see him. Despite this, this early Allen – the last “Allen Old Style” – offers plenty of entertainment, and both Woody and Diane Keaton clearly had a lot of fun making this film.