Match Point: Woody Wins! With Witty, Anglophiliac Angst

Woody Allen’s Match Point, from his own screenplay, was reportedly well received in Cannes earlier this year, especially (and not

Woody Allen’s Match Point, from his own screenplay, was reportedly well received in Cannes earlier this year, especially (and not surprisingly) by the French critics. It was less well received by the British critics in London, where the movie was filmed. I have experienced mixed reactions from colleagues and acquaintances that have seen it either in Cannes or at local screenings here in New York, where it’s scheduled to open near the end of the year. I liked it enormously—otherwise, I would not be jumping the gun to review it more than a month ahead of time.

In the impersonally narrated preface that begins the film, it is observed: “The man who said ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net and, for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward and you win … or maybe it doesn’t and you lose.”

Mr. Allen illustrates his thesis with a static shot of a net, across which a tennis ball is hit back and forth by two unseen players. Suddenly the ball bounces off the top of the net and is frame-frozen before it lands either forward or backward. Near the end of the film, this metaphor reappears in a newly urgent and intricately ironic context, affecting the fate—and, by extension, the luck—of the film’s protagonist. That was when I decided that Woody, warts and all, was back, and with a vengeance.

But don’t expect the old serio-comic-romantic Woody of Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), or the primitively antic Woody of Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973). Match Point isn’t particularly funny, largely because it’s almost entirely devoid of Woody’s patented brand of New York–style Jewishness, the source of much of his oy vey humor. Rather, he has invaded the home country of the WASP’s whom he patronized in the past in his most humorlessly pretentious films. Yet Match Point is wittier and more coherent than anything he has done in ages; it is well made and well thought out to its very last shot. The point is that, as he turns 70—after a 40-year career in which he has directed 36 films, and acted in and/or wrote the screenplays for 10 more—Woody is near the top of his game.

If, in its climactic malignancy and immorality, Match Point resembles any previous Allen opus even remotely, it would have to be Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), which I recall downgrading at the time for letting Woody’s nebbishy main character off the hook by shifting the burden of guilt for an evil act to a pseudo-protagonist played by Martin Landau. If I much prefer Match Point to Crimes and Misdemeanors, it’s because his latest protagonist, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a retired professional tennis player who never won the big matches and has now turned club pro at a posh London establishment, could be considered a self-loathing negative-fantasy replica of the director himself.

In the past, Woody the actor was presumed to be the alter ego of Woody the auteur, and much of the bite in his humor came from the moral superiority his quick-witted mouthpiece asserted over the questionable actions of other characters, and of the deplorable tendencies of society as a whole. As it happens, there is not the slightest flaunting of moral superiority by Mr. Wilton’s upwardly mobile tennis pro. He seems to be always thoughtfully pondering his options as he virtually drifts into a highly advantageous marriage to Chloe Hewett (Emily Mortimer), the sister of Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a tennis client he has just met at the club.

Match Point is not awash in ambience as Chris begins his rapid ascent to a world of riches and social prominence. It all looks much too easy, and one wonders at first if Woody is in the right medium for what plays, initially at least, like a stage-bound comedy of manners—until, that is, Tom Hewett introduces our hero to his explosively sensual fiancée, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), an aspiring American actress. Chris is immediately entranced, and sets out to gain her favors even as he is in the process of courting and marrying Chloe.

Neither Nola nor Chloe is treated as the womanly ideal incarnated by Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow in Woody’s more open-hearted eras. Nola is disqualified from such consideration by gradually being reduced to an increasingly petulant sexpot with little acting talent and less and less self-esteem. For her part, Chloe begins with such little self-esteem that she pursues Chris as if he were her last hope to get married, an impression that her father, Alec (Brian Cox), and mother, Eleanor (Penelope Wilton), reinforce by their almost embarrassing eagerness to embrace Chris as their son-in-law. By contrast, Eleanor is so acerbic to Nola that her son eventually breaks his engagement, compelling Nola to return home to Colorado.

Meanwhile, Chloe begins badgering Chris soon after their marriage to get her pregnant immediately. She becomes even more impatient after Tom marries a more socially acceptable partner than Nola and in short order provides a grandchild for his parents, now doting grandparents.

When Chris discovers that Nola has returned from America and opened a boutique in London, he sets out to resume their lustful liaisons, and succeeds. His strenuous double life, however, begins to crumble around him when Nola informs him that she is pregnant and demands that he leave Chloe. It is match-point time for Chris: If he leaves Chloe, it’s goodbye to his cushy life as the boss’ son-in-law. Nor has he shown himself to be a brilliant businessman who can successfully strike out on his own. When he suggests an abortion to Nola, she becomes even more of a pathetically comic figure when she reveals to him that she has had two abortions already and doesn’t plan to have a third.

Desperate measures are called for, and they are soon undertaken, but with enough twists and turns to implicate us all in the outcome. The diabolical logic in Match Point reminds me of nothing so much as Charles Chaplin’s much-underestimated Marxist logic in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), though Woody is less a rabid Marxist than a resigned fatalist with respect to the ways of the world. And after his tabloid adventures and his against-all-odds professional survival, who is to say that he shouldn’t be absolved of the charge of facile cynicism? And how does he always manage to recruit such talented performers at reduced rates? If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

Belmondo, Beyond Breathless

Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques (1960), from a screenplay by Mr. Sautet, José Giovanni and Pascal Jardin, based on the novel by Mr. Giovanni, is the onetime-legendary film in which Jean-Paul Belmondo appeared just before Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (also 1960) made him an international star. Throughout the 60’s, enemies of Mr. Godard and other Cahiers du Cinéma directors of the nouvelle vague insisted that Belmondo’s great film of that year wasn’t Breathless but Classe Tous Risques, which became a hit when it was re-released in 1971 at the cultish MacMahon Theater in Paris, just off the Etoile.

Now that I have seen it for the first time, thanks to Film Forum—where it is playing until Dec. 1 in a new 35-millimeter print with English subtitles—I can testify that apart from Belmondo, there’s no basis for comparing the two pictures.

First of all, Belmondo, who had appeared in nine films previously, had a large but essentially supporting role in Classe Tous Risques. His gangster character is much more gallant and sympathetic here than he is some of the time in Breathless, especially when he mugs someone in a men’s room and steals money from a girlfriend’s purse when she isn’t looking. In comparison, his Eric Stark in Classe Tous Risques is a knight in shining armor when he rescues a young woman named Liliane (Sandra Milo) from an abusive employer who tries to stop her when she attempts to flee from his car. Still, much of the emotion in the film arises from the warm friendship that develops between Stark and the onetime gangster chief Abel Davos (Lino Ventura), a convicted killer now on the run from the French police, with a death sentence facing him if he is caught.

Actually, Stark doesn’t appear onscreen until fairly late in the proceedings, after we have been introduced to Abel, who has settled temporarily in Milan with his wife Therese (Simone France), their two little boys, and Abel’s partner Raymond (Stan Krol). Italy has become too hot for him, and so Abel has to sneak back into France any way he can. But first he needs getaway money, and so he and Raymond stage a daring robbery in broad daylight in which they knock out two bank couriers on a crowded street and successfully escape into the city, stealing a car and then a speedboat in the process. After they beach the boat on the French Mediterranean coast, they are confronted by two border guards. When the shooting stops, the two guards are dead, along with Raymond and Therese. Abel and the two boys are left to proceed to Nice on a bus, and from there he telephones the former members of his gang in Paris, all of whom are now settled down in comparative respectability—which makes them unwilling to stick their necks out for such a high-profile fugitive from justice. At this point, Stark makes his entrance, accepting the assignment to spirit Abel from Nice to Paris in an ambulance. Abel isn’t overjoyed when he sees Stark, a stranger, come to fetch him instead of one of his old comrades, all of whom owed their freedom to his own previous interventions on their behalf. The rest of the film is a downward spiral for Abel and, to a lesser extent, Stark, but not before Abel has managed to exact vengeance on the gang members who betrayed and abandoned him.

The combination of neorealism in the striking street scenes set in Milan and Paris and the overall noirish mood that engulfs Abel into finally accepting his dismal fate at the hands of the executioner would have been a harder sell for the public in the early 60’s than it was in the 70’s, when Jean-Pierre Melville emerged onscreen with his own classic neo-noirs. Melville and Bertrand Tavernier were among Sautet’s most fervent admirers, and both detested François Truffaut’s dismissal of Sautet as a talented script doctor. Contemporary viewers may choose to find Classe Tous Risques more sentimental and less postmodern than Breathless; there is certainly room for both kinds of film in the classical canon. In any event, the young Belmondo alone is worth the price of admission to Classe Tous Risques, whose title is some sort of pun involving insurance policies and endangered tourists, though my French is not nearly good enough for me to be sure.

Filmic Feast From the Middle East

Angelina Maccarone’s Unveiled, from a screenplay by Ms. Maccarone and Judith Kaufmann, turns out to be a condemnation of German immigration practices as well as official Iranian intolerance toward love between women. The director’s statement is clear enough: “The point of departure for the Unveiled project has at its foundation for me, the critical examination of rigid borders and polarities. I believe that such dualisms as good/evil, male/female, legal/illegal, civilized/primitive, are too restricting to accommodate reality in all its contradictions. What interests me is the political in the private sphere, and that which is private in the political sphere, the inalterable and the alteration of one’s own identity, the trangressions of the borders.”

The degree and extent of gender-identity role-playing in Unveiled would have been unthinkable in an Iranian film shot and shown in that country. The central figure is a young woman named Fariba, who is played by Jasmin Tabatabai, an actress who was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1967 and has appeared in a number of German films. Fariba is introduced to us on a flight from Tehran to Frankfurt as a figure veiled in black who shuts herself into the onboard toilet. Once the veil is lifted, a modern young woman is revealed: She holds the veil under the water tap, stuffs it into the smoke detector and then lights up a cigarette.

But when Fariba applies for refugee status in Germany after her expulsion from Iran for sexual nonconformity, it is denied to her—until she assumes the male identity of a fellow refugee who has committed suicide. She finds work in a small-town sauerkraut factory and is accepted by her male co-workers as one of them, even to the point of being dragged off to a brothel for a sexual initiation. In the delicate scene that follows, Fariba pays the prostitute just for conversation until enough time has passed for the men to believe that he/she has been serviced.

When Fariba, still maintaining her masculine guise, later finds herself in close proximity to an attractive woman in the factory named Anne (Anneke Kim Sarnau), she flirts with her at first in a heterosexual manner. But when Anne responds to her advances and begins to suspect the truth—but still remains interested—Fariba must decide if she should take the chance of jeopardizing her refugee status by “coming out” to Anne. What happens next provides the crux of the director’s humanitarian concerns.

Eran Riklis’ The Syrian Bride, from a screenplay by Suha Arraf and Mr. Riklis, was favorably reviewed in this column some time ago as part of the coverage of some festival or other. My favorable opinion still stands, but I am somewhat bemused by how quiet the situation on the border between Syria and Israel has been in comparison with many other regions in the Middle East. One never reads or hears anything about Israeli control of the Golan Heights and its effect on the Druze who populate that part of the Occupied Territories. What one reads or hears about Syria nowadays has to do with its troubled border with Iraq and its unwelcome involvement in Lebanon.

It’s as if the climactic final shots of Mona (Clara Khoury), the Syrian Bride herself, walking past the astonished border guards in solitary splendor to her television-celebrity groom on the Syrian side, has somehow detoxified the area of its bristling hatreds. Mr. Riklis and Ms. Arraf have collaborated on an international project dedicated to the elimination of borders between countries and between men and women, both in the text and the subtext. Mr. Riklis credits Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) as an early influence on his feelings of cross-border brotherhood, sparked in The Syrian Bride by women becoming more aware of their rights and powers. I recommend the film even more strongly than I did the first time. Match Point: Woody Wins!  With Witty, Anglophiliac Angst