Great Films #810: Love and Death (Allen, 1975)

Woody Allen’s Love and Death is not only his most consistently funny film, but also marks the first key turning point in his career. Before its release in 1975, the films he directed, such as Bananas, Sleeper, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, verged on the slapstick, and were more episodic in structure; after Love and Death came a series of three more meditative, mature films, namely Annie Hall, Interiors and Manhattan. Sandwiched in between these is this 85 minute masterpiece, which though rooted in the former aesthetic, points towards the latter.

The film is essentially an homage to proto-existentialist Russian literature, in particular through numerous references to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and the many mock-philosophical debates about existence and death. The prominent use of Prokofiev in the score adds to the Russian flavour. However, the setup allows director Allen to parody many other of his key reference points, most notably nudges to the films of Ingmar Bergman and Eisenstein’s classic Battleship Potemkin.

However, describing the film in these terms is to ignore its main selling-point: the humour. The laughs come thick and fast, by means of slapstick, parody, satire, anachronisms as well as some fantastic one-liners and put-downs. Boris is, like most of Allen’s self-played protagonists, equally cursed and blessed, with his trademark insecurities and completely unbelievable sexual magnetism. Love and Death represents the high-water mark of Allen’s comedy output, and as with all great comedies, it’s best to just let the jokes speak for themselves.

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