Monday, April 11, 2011
#100: Love and Death
The setting is 18th century Russia and Napoleon is at his plunderous best and Boris (Woody Allen), a harmless Russian peasant is packed off to assist his fellow countrymen in fighting against Napoleon's forces. Now, Boris is the kind of person who would say sorry twice if he as much got in the way of a butterfly so you can imagine what our man goes through when he's undergoing rigorous army training under the watchful eyes of officers. To add to his woes, Boris' childhood crush Sonja (Diane Keaton) married a merchant just before he left for war. Boris' subsequent days as a soldier and his role in the war forms the basis of this 1975 classic that's written and directed by that bespectacled, clarinet-playing, hyperactive genius who was born as Allen Stewart Konigsberg.
If the travails of a protagonist produces great drama, Love and Death just shows you how and why. Except that Love and Death is a comedy. Of all the themes that Woody Allen explored in his lifetime as a writer- relationships, betrayal, lust, power and envy , Love and Death has them all and has them with liberal doses of humor. And then there is Woody's tribute to past masters in movies, then the spoof of some famous Russian works and then those references sneering at the complexity of some of the greatest thinkers of our times. There is so much packed in, it's difficult to keep track of all these layered elements and yet it's a movie that's so easy to laugh with.
The unabashed comedy that Love and Death is, you will laugh at not at just those witty references, but also the inane jokes, the farcical situations and all the slapstick fare that goes along with it. Humor is so all-pervading, if you'll blink, you'll miss something funny. The writing is sharply designed to crack you up and the lines keep coming thick and fast. Sample this surreal exchange between a young Boris and Death.
Death: You're an interesting young man. We'll meet again
Young Boris: Oh don't bother.
Death: It's no bother.
Or this rant from Boris: You think I am made in God's image. Take a look at me. You think He wears glasses ?
To sum it up, Love and Death is absurdist comedy at it's best. It makes a mockery of all things in life - love and death included and it does so with dignity and intelligence. If there is some lowbrow humor in the midst of all this, the movie manages to regain it's composure at all such rare times to take the alternative route soon enough to not irritate your senses much. Woody has been nominated for fourteen writing Oscars in his lifetime and this movie really makes you wonder how this one got away. If I meet people who tell me, they're Woody Allen fans, my first question invariably is: Have you seen Love and Death?.
For if you haven't, you just don't belong.