VENICE, Italy—It’s a return to form for Woody Allen! That’s right, a return to the form of 2015’s Irrational Man, which saw Parker Posey playing a character under the age of 70 called “Rita,” and Joaquin Phoenix saying, “Where do you want to run away to? Tahiti, like Paul Gauguin?”
Which is to say that nobody in a Woody Allen film has uttered a single sentence that an actual person would say for the best part of 20 years. His films are filled to the gills with cheap exposition, crass character building, hollowed-out dialogue, and the odd sub-New Yorker comic strip punchline. As usual, in Coup de Chance, which premiered Monday at the Venice Film Festival, there is a married young woman who has an affair, and a suspicious husband; as so often, especially in Allen’s terrible late style, the theme of chance plays a great big role, doled out glibly. There is a prying mother-in-law. In fact, I entered the request “Write the plot of a Woody Allen film set in Paris, with a wife cheating on her husband, and containing the theme of chance” into ChatGPT and it’s truly astounding how close the bot got.
“The film opens with Lucas and Emily’s seemingly happy marriage slowly unraveling. Emily’s discontentment with her mundane life becomes evident as she frequents Parisian art galleries and social events while Lucas remains immersed in his philosophical musings about chance,” reads the opening AI paragraph. Nearly! In Coup de Chance, it’s Jean and Fanny’s seemingly happy marriage that is slowly unraveling, and Fanny’s discontentment with her mundane life becomes evident as she frequents Parisian art galleries and social events. It’s Fanny’s lover, Alain, who gives us his philosophical musings about chance.
Fanny meets Alain quite by chance in the street—an old friend from high school who used to have a crush on her. (How adorable that Alain was the same age as this schoolgirl when he was in love with her!) He is a writer—a young, hopeful, idealistic man whose flame for Fanny still burns bright, while Fanny’s older husband, Jean, is a cynical money guy. (Woody’s screenplay is so lazy that it doesn’t even bother thinking up an actual job for Jean—we are just told that “he makes rich people richer,” though whether he does this by investing their money in stocks and shares, or by granting them three wishes when summoned from his lamp, is anybody’s guess.)
Back to the plot: a series of Woody Allen things happen, and Jean decides he must put an end to his wife’s affair, by any means. This skulduggery is played for easy laughs, in the way Allen has always adopted, scoring big by exploiting a facile disconnect between high-society comedy of manners and brutish deus ex-machinas. Alain believes in fortune, talking expansively about chance bringing him and Fanny back together—and chance plays a significant role in the film’s denouement. This is cute, but it’s territory that Allen has visited over and over and over again, and it feels like somebody going through the motions, on top of which it’s really not a theme that can yield that many variations.
Everything here sounds false, like raising a toast with plastic champagne cups. Alain is supposed to be a young writer, living a “bohemian” life, but his apartment is in fact a bijou loft property, apparently located in Paris’s most well-to-do neighborhood. No new-born baby has been named “Alain” in France since the year 1964. Sad-eyed, desperate-looking actors are obligated to say things like, “I feel as if I were experiencing my youth anew, seeing you in that polo neck,” or, “What is wrong? You are pale in appearance.” (I am attempting to give an impression of Allen’s hilariously false, unidiomatic French, by translating it back into English, after it was presumably translated into French from the original 1970s American with the use of Google Translate.)
No actor can make this garbage sound believable, but some of France’s best actors, who apparently have no qualms working with Woody Allen after the credible accusations made against him by Dylan Farrow, are more than willing to give it the old college try.
Melvil Poupaud, hot off working with Roman Polanski on 2019’s An Officer and a Spy, flounders in the role of Jean, playing an old-school slimebag with as much verve as he can muster, but tripping badly over Allen’s haggard men are from Mars, women are from Venus dialogue, such as, “Aren’t we fortunate, to have such beautiful wives?” Valérie Lemercier, as Fanny’s mum, has enough training in comedy to survive this tin-eared pablum, adding much-needed hesitations and beats so that there is something like authenticity to her character.
But nothing can counteract the airless, stuffy fakery of this film: It’s there in scenes that simply peter out, fading to black 1.5 seconds after someone has finished speaking; it’s there in the school-play blocking, which repeatedly sees characters standing around in a U formation so that all their faces can be seen; it’s there in the scarcely believable quoting of poets; in the under-characterisation of the lead woman; in the Greek Chorus-style exposition; in Fanny’s “woman who has a job” costuming; in the reference-points, the gender politics, the touristy Parisian locations, the Chekhov’s gun finale and the music. Fake, fake, fake.
Allen clearly carries on working because he enjoys being on a film set—there can be no other explanation for his continually making the same film with such wretchedly diminishing returns. His exceptionally brief spell in film prison now apparently over, he will surely return to English-language filmmaking and his one-a-year habit: Can he find someone who will translate his screenplay into 2024?
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