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"Love & Death" is an important milestone in Woody Allen's career. It marks the last movie he would film outside the boundaries of New York City for nearly twenty-five years, and in atmosphere and tone it is also the last of his "pure" comedies, where getting laughs was the top priority. Perhaps a good modern analogy is English comedy writer Richard Curtis - "Love & Death" is Woody Allen's "Blackadder", whereas later films like "Manhattan" or "Annie Hall" are "Notting Hill" and "Love Actually" (more metropolitan, but ultimately blander).
In fact, fans of Blackadder and other historical comedies will find a thrill of recognition in the style of "Love and Death". Allen plays fast and loose with anarchronisms and historical cliches, and even if you don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of Dostoyevsky, he paints his parodies of Russian literature with such broad strokes that as long as you know what snow is, you should probably be able to pick up on the jokes. A rattling soundtrack of Prokofiev (including Christmas favourite, "Troika", under a Bergman-aping dance routine at the end) also adds some flavour to the borsht.
At the film's centre is Woody Allen's character Boris Grushencko, a wisecracking but cowardly 18th century Russian who through no fault of his own finds himself enlisted as an infantryman, facing the invading troops of Emperor Napoleon. Of course, Allen's performance is very similar to his previous leading characters (Virgin Starkwell, Fielding Mellish, Miles Monroe, etc) - all of which act as a simple conduit for Allen's put-upon, nebbish stand-up and characterisation. This time however, and perhaps more obviously than at any other point in his career, Allen is also busy divining the work of his own two major influences - The Marx Brothers (he and co-star Diane Keaton ape and parody earlier Marx Brothers routines at certain points in "Love and Death") and film director Ingmar Bergman (whose films are also quoted throughout the movie).
The film also includes a hilarious performance from Diane Keaton, as his mercenary cousin Sonja. Boris is unrequitedly in love with her from the beginning of the film, and following several heart attacks from various suiters and husbands, Sonja eventually agrees to marry Boris, who is now back home as a war hero, after a series of fortuitous moments on the battlefield. He has let slip to her that he is set to fight a duel the following morning with one of the finest shots in all Russia, and is guaranteed to die in the process; and only it is only in these circumstances does Sonja get engaged to him. In fact, Boris' rival misses; he has a Damascan conversion mid-shot and suddenly declares he wants to "devote my life as I once did in my childhood - to my singing! La la la-la-la!" (to which Boris mutters: "I shoulda shot 'im ... ") So, Sonja - almost catanoic with dissapointment - is forced to marry Boris after all.
An almost silent sequence of scenes, including much physical comedy with a lobster, follows and we see the couple fall in love in a Russian agrarian community: they befriend the village idiot and embrace a simple life (apart from occasional protacted conversation about morality and philosophy). Soon, however, Sonja's mercenary nature rears its head again. And entirely through her cajoling, Boris reluctantly finds himself as the proposed assassin in the middle of a plot to murder Napoleon.
Napoleon's arrival (a characterisation that would later re-appear almost wholesale in Terry Gilliam's 1980 movie "Time Bandits") marks a change in tone to the movie, as Allen's wisecracks become even more Groucho-like in his Imperial prescence. Shades of Charlie Chaplin's satirical masterpiece "The Great Dictator" also permeate these scenes - and parallels between "Love & Death" and Allen's early film "Bananas" can be drawn, as Allen sends up the very ideas of revolution and corrupt power in equal measure.
I don't want to ruin the end of the film by going too much into the final scenes, but suffice is to say that they return to more sturdy and recognisable Allen territory, as Boris meets members of his family he has not seen since the beginning of the film, and the Church is lampooned mercilessly. The music and the dialogue bring the film to a satisfying, goose-bumpy climax. Although, for me, it's actually rather sad, as the credits ends, to realise that Woody Allen would never been as funny or as free with his writing again.
Like all other early, budget Woody Allen DVDs, the extras on this disc are very scant indeed - just a trailer and "animated menus" (which is a bit like saying the ability to fast forward or pause is a special feature). But it really is a brilliant comedy, well worth seeking out, even if you find his later, hand-wringing work rather cloying.
Love and Death sees Woody Allen's very contemporary persona placed in Russia in 1812. Allen plays Boris, a coward (told that he has a yellow streak down his back, Boris disagrees and says it runs across his back!) who spends most of his life day dreaming about his beautiful cousin Sonia (Diane Keaton). Inspired by Tolstoy's War and Peace, the clash between Woody's wisecracking nebbish persona and the period setting is very funny.
Boris somehow ends up being sentanced for execution for assassinating Napoleon's double. The opening sequence of Love and Death starts at this point before we go back to find out how Boris ended up there. "How I got into this predicament I'll never know," says Boris mournfully. "Absolutely incredible." The sweep of the opening scenes (rolling clouds) show very clearly that Allen has moved on from the technical rawness of his earlier films. Love and Death really does feel like a proper film and not a throwaway comedy.
A moment which illustrates Allen's development comes when the Generals watch the battle from the top of a hill. Allen cuts in a shot of a herd of sheep and we see that that is how the Generals see them. They aren't real people dying to them, merely pawns to be moved.
Something I find especially interesting about this film is its position as the link between Woody's 'early funny' pictures and the more mature sombre work that he would produce later. Love and Death is as funny as any film in the Woody collection with countless (verbal and visual) jokes and quotable lines but also touches on themes and devices Woody would become more interested in later. Existential conversations are frequent in Love and Death and Allen uses them to both make points and get laughs. The balance is more assured here. Allen uses Bergmanesque themes like dreams, mystic visions and God and laces them with his comic slant. Prokofiev was chosen for the score, a brave move by Allen at the time. To his credit the music works well with the film and doesn't come off as a pretentious decision.
Along the way Boris is forced to join the war effort. He undergoes basic training and is predictably hopeless and funny. A beautifully staged opera scene sees Boris attempt to seduce Olga Georges-Picot. The juxtapostion between the small nerdy Allen and the statuesque Picot simply makes it all funnier. Boris finally manages to marry Sonia and the chemistry between Allen and Diane Keaton is as always a joy to behold. Sonia is reduced to using snow to cook with and they form a friendship with the village idiot. I can't off the top of my head think of any other pairing who would be as much fun to watch in this film.
Perhaps Love and Death becomes a little stagey and farce-like with the twin Napoleons near the end but it doesn't intrude too much or drag out the running time. Love and Death moves quickly and you are never far away from the next funny line or visual joke.
One of my favourite moments occurs when the newly weds retire to bed and Boris moves over to his wife. "No, not here!" says Sonia. The bemused look on Allen's face is priceless. I also love the duel between Boris and Harold Gould. Allen uses his verbal skills to try and delay the duel in a manner that Groucho Marx would have been proud of.
Overall Love and Death has the energy and fun of previous early Allen films but is much more ambitious. I would be hard-pressed to list my ten favourite films without finding a place for Love and Death.
Oh, I nearly forgot. Allen's first appearance in the film, taking part in traditional Russian dancing, is absolutely hilarious!
Subtitles, scene access. Sadly Woody Allen doesn't really do extras.
Love And Death is one of Woody Allen’s best films. It's simply one of the funniest films I have seen. Woody is a cowardly Russian, madly in love with Diane Keaton who somehow ends up helping defend his country from Napoleons attacks so goes to war. Woody manages to come out of this a hero and through this turn of events bumps into Diane Keaton once more. This all leads to a duel, marriage, attempted assassination and lots of silly Woody Allen humour. What makes this Allen film so good is that it's got a lot of the humour of Bananas and Sleeper yet has more structure and thought to it to make it a better film all round. The setting of Russia is a nice change for Allen and we get to see great costumes and scenery too. The cast is, as usual, all very good and give excellent performances. Keaton is great as the object of desire who is only interested in what makes her more popular. Allen is, well, Woody Allen, isn't that always the case? And the supporting cast is all good in their roles. If you are a Woody Allen fan then you have to see this film if you haven't, it has Woody at his best. If you like your comedy very funny, well made and clever then this is the film for you.
After Woody Allen's strange/original sci-fi hit Sleeper, Allen goes all out to try and parody Russia and Doctor Zhivago in Love And Death. To be honest, it's a very hit and miss affair. At some stages of the film the set piece jokes are extremely funny and at other times extremely stupid and cringeworthy. Allen seems annoyingly obsessed with debating philosophy with Diane Keaton as well, and there are at least three scenes which aren't necessary as they centre solely on this subject. Also, Allen is deeply arrogant and sometimes the camera sticks with his verbal conversings/ramblings with the audience far too long and boredom ensues. The film is only an hour and twenty minutes long but feels three hours. Allen hit his peak with Annie Hall and Love And Death isn't a patch on it. Only die hard fans will appreciate it. The DVD has a nice anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer and a trailer, but that's all.
Writer-director Woody Allen's 1975 comedy finds the familiar Allen persona transposed to 19th-century Russia, as a cowardly serf drafted into the war against Napoleon, when all he'd rather do is write poetry and obsess over his beautiful but pretentious cousin (Diane Keaton). A total disaster as a soldier, Allen's cowardice serves him well when he hides in a cannon and is shot into a tent of French soldiers, suddenly making him a national hero. After his cousin agrees to marry him, thinking he'll be killed in a duel he miraculously survives, the couple must hatch a ludicrous plot to assassinate Napoleon in order to keep the coward Allen out of yet another war. Allen and Keaton show what a perfect comic team they make in this film, even predating their most celebrated pairing in Annie Hall. Working so well as the most unlikely of comedies, of all things a hilarious parody of Russian literature, Love and Death is a must-see for fans of Woody Allen films. --Robert Lane