Love and Death ★★★★


The only subject I ever liked at school was English Literature. Sure, I enjoyed certain aspects of History and stuff like that but the only one I ever looked forward to attending was English Literature. I loved it and felt that I was pretty good at it. Talking bollocks and dreaming interpretations up out of thin air is definitely my forte. I loved it so much that I decided to dedicate three years of my life to it at University. As a result, I’m now a dickhead. I can’t help it. Whenever someone tells me they like the Harry Potter books or some sci-fi fantasy shit I pull pretentious faces and declare them to be beneath me. I wish I wasn’t such a tit but I am. Worse still, I can’t just sit there and enjoy a film or a TV show without analysing it to death, often adding my own psychoanalytical twist (I once spent quite a lot of time deconstructing Take Me Out for my friends when all they were interested in was ranking the women involved in the show) and coming across as some pseudo-intellectual wanker. I’m the type of person who describes books as “gorgeous” and films as “scintillating” without a hint of irony. Not only that but I’m irritatingly left-wing so if you’re looking for a walking, talking student stereotype then please look no further than me.

However, despite all of this, there’s one element of literary history that I just can’t get my head around and that is Russian literature. I plundered my way through War and Peace when I was sixteen but as far as most Russian literature goes, I’m about as clued up as Father Ted (“I felt his commitment started to wane around the time he stopped writing about crime and went on to the punishment bit. It began to drag a bit there for me.”) Therefore, when I first went into Love and Death I was somewhat apprehensive. I didn’t want to sit there missing out on all of the jokes because I didn’t understand what was going on. After all, the film is effectively a 90-minute piss-take of the plodding, over-indulgent nature of most classic Russian novels. Thankfully, my worries were unfounded as Love and Death is a (mostly) cripplingly funny film, even if you have no prior knowledge of the genre its mocking whatsoever.

I think the first point I’d like to make is that, as far as I’m concerned, Love and Death is probably Woody Allen’s greatest film. It’s not my favourite and I don’t think it’s the funniest work he’s ever done but in terms of comic structure, originality and direction, it’s his greatest achievement. There are moments when the comedy is cheap and a little bit corny but there are a lot of gems in here and the deconstruction of the genre is sublime. Boris’ (Allen) interactions about objectivity, subjectivity and morality with Sonja (Diane Keaton) are just genius and the cliché scene in the restaurant absolutely killed me. I admit that some of the stuff went over my head but even then, I could appreciate that were I more knowledgeable about the genre, I’d probably have found it all hilarious.

The film’s greatest strength is by far its characters. Allen absolutely nails his caricature of 1800s Russian society and the manner in which it has been treated by novelists. They’re a surreal and ridiculous bunch but it works, not only because it’s classic Allen and everything you would expect from him but also because it’s so funny. The film is full of doublespeak and anachronisms that can, at times, become a bit overbearing but multiple viewings always offer something new that you might have missed earlier. I’d never fully appreciated the genius behind Lebedokov (Harold Gould)’s instantaneous change of personality until I re-watched the film but it’s one of the film’s greatest scenes.

Ultimately, this film is exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a deconstruction of love and of death, albeit in the setting of a Russian novel, and it’s done brilliantly. It’s not the funniest of Allen’s films (as I said earlier, there are some moments of pure gold but there is certainly some dross that hasn’t quite passed the test of time) but in terms of its creativity and the clear dedication and devotion that Allen had for it, it’s a fantastic film to watch. Allen and Keaton are on top form as they always are and the madness of the plot is a real treat. Allen mixes the surreal with the sublime to create a film that is – for the most part – as fresh as it was 37 years ago. I always despair a bit when I watch films like this and Annie Hall (one of my favourite films ever) because they remind me just how brilliant Woody Allen once was.