This summer, Woody Allen may be at Cannes with his latest, though yet untitled movie. And with him could be Indian beauty from Slumdog Millionaire Freida Pinto. Allen has been shooting in London his love comedy, starring Josh Brolin, Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts and Pinto.
Allen never titles his films till they are completed. He once told me that he preferred to give an aggressive title to one he found good and less aggressive name to a work he felt was not so good. A low key title promises nothing and is less likely to disappoint viewers. Art is good, bad or mediocre, but seldom perfect, he believes. How very true.
Though Allen’s Cannes plans are not yet certain, the helmer has had a lingering association with the festival on the French Riviera, held every May. A relationship that even did him great good. In 2008, his battered reputation got a shot of sparkle when his delightful Vicky Christina Barcelona was critically acclaimed. The response was almost rapturous.
The movie was classically Woody, urbane, witty and even strikingly bold with a torrid kiss between two of its three leading ladies, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz. Maybe this provoked the fantasy of every male in the Cannes audiences. There was more to this fancy: a romantic threesome with two women, and a wife as an add-on!
But when reporters quizzed him after the screening whether Allen has ever imagined himself in such a hot situation, he threw in a wet blanket. He said: "You know, it's hard enough to get one person. In trying to figure out solutions in life, two actually tends to make it more complicated than one. The characters in this film are able, the chemistry was right, and they're able to handle the situation”, Allen said. "But in real life, most of us petty people could never handle anything like that. It's hard enough to get a relationship that can work out with one person, but with two, it becomes geometrically more fatal."
Little Woody really confuses and confounds you with this answer. Here is a man whose life has been a romantic roll with cans of controversy. He has been accused of molesting his seven-year-old adopted daughter? Later, he married his step-daughter.
Soon-yi Previn was the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow, Allen’s longtime lover. Though Allen was never married to Farrow and was never Previn’s legal stepfather, the media and society lambasted this relationship. Admittedly, Allen knew Previn ever since she was seven, but she said that she had never seen him as a father. The two married in 1997, when Previn was 22 and Allen 56. The tie continues, and he finally put to rest all accusations by quipping “the heart wants what it wants”.
And Allen’s heart wants many things. Great cinema certainly, and one that is so varied. In his long celluloid innings that began in 1966 with What’s Up, Tiger Lily? he made screwball comedies, sheer dramas, fascinating no-holds-bar love stories and mean murderous fare. Some were cheered with Champagne. Some ran into rocks. Some stole hearts, some made you wince and want to rush back home.
In fact, for some years, Allen had disappeared from the movie radar, pushed as he were into eminently forgettable crevices of the human mind. Cassandra’s Dream was a classic example of a thriller mounted on comic frames that seemed to scream the death-knell of this megaphone man. Cassandra’s Dream came at the end of a string of flops.
However, with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he seems to have popped into view. I would call this work one of his finest, real chocolate and cheese. An auteur to the core, Allen’s film is peppered with his passion for love, romance, art and history. Obsessed with magnificence, he goes in search of sights that are seductive, beauty that is breathtaking and intellectualism that is intriguing. In Allen, I see a charm that may be old world, but gloriously gracious and succulently sensuous. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an embodiment of all these.
Set in sun-drenched Spain, shot in luscious light and photographed around hauntingly pretty architecture and dreamy nooks, the movie uses animal intensity and celebration to enslave us. Two girlfriends, one engaged to be married, and the other out of yet another broken affair, holiday in Spain and run into devilishly attractive painter, whose invitation for a weekend of sexual exuberance is hard to resist.
What follows is a Woody classic, with ardent entanglements and disappointing break-ups. The picture has been an international hit, nominated for 2009 Oscars with its actress Penelope Cruz winning one for a supporting role. It works the way Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters worked. It is a bitter sweet story, a subtle though hard-to-resist sexual romp touching upon universal truths.
Allen’s earlier Match Point about an ordinary man climbing the steps of social and economic success through deceit and pretence is not funny. Since it is commonly assumed that the American director, born and raised in New York, has a comic temperament, one is surprised when he makes a movie like Match Point. Perhaps, this is to affirm that his view of the world is essentially nihilistic.
Match Point opened at Cannes in 2005. Here Allen’s hero is a tennis player and coach who says that the role of luck is often underestimated, and as Match Point progresses we realise how true this is. Somewhat similar to Allen’s earlier Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point unfolds in London’s upper crust, where two outsiders, the player and a struggling American actress, are caught in web of sexual lust. There are no morals here.
Allen’s characters are invariably versions of himself or manifestations of his neuroses. And he does not even make any great effort to disguise them. But the characters are adorable, each in his or her own way, and it is they who provide the zing in his cinema that leaves you mesmerised in some strange way. Closer to making his 50th picture, the auteur, who always writes his own scripts and has often acted in them as well, draws heavily from literature, philosophy, ancient Greek heritage, his Jewish identity and his home city, New York.
He has won three Academy Awards and been nominated 21 times: 14 as a screenwriter, six as a director, and one as an actor. He has more writing nominations in the original category than any other author. Yet, at 70-plus, he has, it appears, all the energy still left that emerges out of the comical sad sack look he portrays. After all, he began his show business 60 years ago, sending jokes to columnists Walter Winchell and Earl Wilson. He went on to become a gag writer and made his showman debut as a standup comedian at New York’s Blue Angel in 1960.
His expressions were invariably expressionless. Deadpan, they were to the point of disturbing you. They still are, and the little Woody man foxes you.