The Woodman rants about the film world and then dreams about it in his 49th release
If you’ve seen the trailer to the new Woody Allen film (and yes, there’s a new one), there’s no denying that the legendary director’s latest offering features a plot and a main character so incredibly close to home, it’s a wonder he didn’t cast himself in it. The movie is set against the backdrop of a European film festival and has as its protagonist a once well-respected figure in the film community who now finds himself a bit of an outsider. It’s terrain which Allen hasn’t explored to this extent since 2002’s Hollywood Ending. However with Rikfin’s Festival, the parallels are insinuated to such a degree, that the only way to keep from drawing comparisons would be to not watch the film at all. As an Allen apologist, I’m usually forgiving about the way the filmmaker writes himself into his work. This time around however, if even he can’t pretend, then I definitely can’t.
Rifkin’s Festival stars Wallace Shawn as Mort Rifkin, a former film critic struggling to complete his debut novel for reasons that are purely existential. In an effort to combat his writer’s block, Mort travels to the San Sebastian Film Festival with his wife Sue (Gina Gershon), a publicist whose star client is a hip young director named Philippe (Louis Garrel). Philippe is the kind of new filmmaker whose work Mort detests and rather than watch him and his kind be lavished with praise, he goes wandering about the city in an effort to find himself. What he does find is a beautiful doctor named Jo (Elena Anaya), with whom he feels a strong connection.
I’ve said before that second tier Allen is better than first tier a lot of other people. While I still find that notion to be true, there’s a struggle this time around with the approach Allen’s taken here, specifically the complete and total lack of subtlety. Rifkin’s Festival has a plot, a fairly decent one, actually, which Allen continuously puts on pause to have Mort to discuss his many grievances with the film world. We see Mort rant about how art should favor the ideological rather than overt and political. He goes on about commercial films trying to be pretentious and all but pits the older generation of film critics against the younger crop of filmmakers.
Some of these arguments, while true, are too on the nose to pass as enlightening or entertaining, despite Allen’s attempts to make them both. One scene shows Philippe being honored at a dinner with an award named after Luis Bunuel, which Mort claims he’s attending out of respect for Bunuel. Meanwhile, in another scene, the list of his favorite classic foreign directors he names off at a luncheon is greeted with confused looks and the actual sounds of crickets chirping. It’s all far too literal, for sure. But this level of transparency can also be seen as Allen unplugged, with the director enraged and incensed at the way the industry has evolved (or devolved, according to Mort) since he first started out.
It’s impossible to dismiss Rifkin’s Festival altogether because of what does work, namely its various dream sequences. Throughout his time in San Sebastian, Mort experiences unusual dreams which are a combination of childhood memories and reimagined moments with people he knew before, all of which help him to piece together the genesis of his existential state. These sequences are each a welcome call back to early Allen and help make Mort’s neuroses come off as palatable and far more interesting than they ever come off in the real world. There’s a mix of whimsy and melancholy to the idea that the cinema he loves is still alive in his dreams; an idea realized by a second Bunuel nod that is actually pretty amusing.
Allen also makes fairly good location use of San Sebastián when it comes to providing a landscape for themes of contemplation and reflection to play out. Watching Mort stroll the city, we see a man who is frustrated and looking for revitalization in the midst of mental conflict and bitterness. It’s a bitterness not only towards young successful filmmakers, but to anyone who enjoys the kind of inspiration he no longer has. At some point Mort becomes convinced that Jo is his unexpected muse as well as his key to renewed creative passion thanks to her mix of practicality and romanticism. Here Rifkin’s Festival shows a somewhat vulnerable Allen; a man re-evaluating himself as an artist after so many years filled with both praise and punches who is perhaps wondering where he fits in now.
After years of doing solid character work in everything from the popular (Clueless) to the bizarre (Southland Tales), it’s good to see Shawn enjoying a well-deserved leading role. Even if he’s playing the most Woody Allen character that ever existed, his mannerisms and delivery all succeed in helping to make the character his and his alone. He’s paired well with both leading ladies, each of whom Allen utilizes well. Sue brings out such a mature and funny performance from Gershon, while Ayana is dynamic and ethereal in every scene she’s in. Apart from that trio, it’s Christoph Waltz as Death (showing up to play a game of chess with Mort on the beach) who leaves enough of an impression to make you wish he was in the film just a bit longer.
It’s hard not to sympathize with Mort’s endless frustrations when it comes to reconciling what the world considers a piece of art that’s worth acclaim and what’s just hollow and pretty. There are veiled references here to film Twitter and the oftentimes nauseating discourse happening 24/7. For better and worse, the discourse seems to get louder and more emboldened with each box-office Friday and festival debut, that ignoring it is virtually impossible. During Rifkin’s Festival I couldn’t help but think: Has the noise gotten so loud that its actually spilled into the Woody Allen world? Is Allen venting about his generation’s place in films today, or is he making fun of the current climate of film and the way everyone is simply up in arms all the time? Both are possible. Even if he ceases to pretend here, it’s hard not to admit that the director’s arguments don’t resonate and it’s nice to see how even someone like Allen can find the state of the film world as maddening as the rest of us.