Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB
Spain/USA/Italy, 2020. Gravier Productions, Wildside, Orange, Perdido Productions, Televisio de Catalunya, The MediaPro Studio. Screenplay by Woody Allen. Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro. Produced by Erika Aronson, Letty Aronson, Jaume Roures. Music by Stephane Wrembel. Production Design by Alain Bainee. Costume Design by Sonia Grande. Film Editing by Alisa Lepselter.
Woody Allen returns to Spain for another comedy of romantic woe set against a dazzling, exotic backdrop. Having spent the last few decades making his usually publicity-shy life even smaller and avoiding much interaction with modern popular culture, Allen’s late-life films have, to no one’s surprise, become rather solipsistic and repetitive of their themes, sometimes to powerful effect (Blue Jasmine, Irrational Man) and other times just feeling like tired excuses to keep up his prolific rate of releases (Magic In The Moonlight, Café Society). A Rainy Day In New York was charming if not unforgettable, but there’s little that’s cherishable in his follow-up effort, this lifeless tale of a neurotic, hypochondriac writer (Wallace Shawn filling in for the maestro) who is visiting San Sebastian with his press agent wife (Gina Gershon) while she is promoting the career of a wunderkind auteur (Louis Garrel) with whom he suspects she is brewing a romance. Shawn’s moment of solace comes when he experiences what he thinks is a heart attack and goes to see a doctor who turns out to also be a beautiful woman (Elena Anaya), becoming entranced and strikes up a chaste friendship with her.
The familiarity of this set-up is a rut so deep that the actors can barely give performances lively enough to get out of them, starting with the love triangle of the self-aware neurotic who is hampered by his own lack of self-worth, the arrogant phony who dazzles people too stupid to know better (Garrel is this film’s version of Alan Alda in Crimes And Misdemeanors) and the intelligent but careless woman stuck between the two of them (Gershon in place of Mia Farrow). Anaya’s plot is something of a reverse of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, this time it’s her troubled husband (Sergi López) who is the charismatic madman in place of Penelope Cruz’s Pilar (but is also a painter). Every shot is a work of beauty, San Sebastian looks pristine throughout, but the film is a chore to get through, namely because of Shawn’s awkwardly inept performance, he seems confused far more than someone in front of a camera should and sometimes appears to be reaching for his next line.
Allen attempts to spice things up by including dream sequences that are recreations of his favourite black and white European classics (and boiler plate Criterion Collection classics at that, Fellini’s 8 ½, Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries) but they are merely exercises in form, adding no depth or insight to what is already a worn-out, formulaic ride through his imagination. The scandals of the great director’s personal life have, of late, called the validity of his legacy into question, but what many of his detractors claim is their moral reasoning for boycotting his work is really the popular culture that he lost touch with rejecting his best earlier works for no longer being in style; the confusions of a self-hating man at war with his feelings of inadequacy for the worthy, untouchable woman whom he both loves and resents isn’t exactly what is setting young audience members’ minds on fire these day. For his more recent films to survive this demand for relevancy, stronger writing is needed to accompany the indulgence in nostalgia (Midnight In Paris), but this film is not the one to do it.