Woody Allen’s Match Point

(WARNING: SOME SPOILERS)

If I had to pick one word to describe Woody Allen’s new movie, Match Point, that word would be self-indulgent. Imagine that you’re one of the world’s most respected and acclaimed directors. Imagine that because of this you can get away with making a movie that celebrates all of your favourite obsessions – that allows you to combine the flamboyance of Italian opera with the angst of Russian literature, that lets you take a plot that is a neat inversion of Dostoyevsky, set it to a score that consists mainly of the immortal Caruso, and throw in some of the hottest people on the planet (and some of the most gorgeous real estate in England) for good measure. Wouldn’t that be fun? Wouldn’t it be exactly what you’ve always dreamed of doing? Because it’s not really a bad notion and because you are, after all, a fundamentally sound film maker, the audience won’t totally hate it, but that’s besides the point. The point is that you owe it to yourself to try.

For years now Allen has been trying to make ‘serious’ dramatic cinema. The results, thus far, have not been pretty. The movies that have emerged from this reimagining of himself as a cross between Strindberg and Bergman have been awkward, stilted works like September, Another Woman and Interiors (more on my thoughts on these movies here). Match Point may be the first of the movies in this mode of his – movies where Allen is almost entirely absent, movies that deal with identity and relationships and the meaning of life – that actually works.

The central premise of Match Point comes straight out of Crime and Punishment (a point that Allen impresses upon you by making his central character read the book early on and then referring to it a number of times afterwards, just in case you missed it). What if there is no God, no justice in the world? What if our lives are driven purely by chance and accident, so that who succeeds and who fails is merely a matter of luck? In Dostoyevsky’s novel, Raskolnikov’s purpose is essentially to test this hypothesis. The experiment is simple enough: Raskolnikov will commit a henious crime. If there is meaning and justice in the world, he will be punished for it, if there is none, then he will get away scot free. What contaminates the experiment in the book is the fact that Raskolnikov (and through him Dostoyevsky) is terrified by the thought of what his escape would imply, and so is driven to put himself at greater and greater risk of arrest, simply because he would rather suffer punishment than be proved right in his hypothesis. The conclusion of Crime and Punishment is thus a capitulation both on Raskolnikov’s part and on Dostoyevsky’s.

But that fact that the ending is a cop-out raises some interesting questions. What if things had gone the other way? What if Raskolnikov (or his modern-day equivalent) were to truly want to escape, what if his crime was motivated by genuine self-interest, what if he didn’t try to get caught? And what if the author had decided, despite everything to let Raskolnikov escape – what if Dostoyevsky had had the courage to stick with what he intuitively knew to be true – to state the bald truth that life is meaningless? These are not, of course, new questions – they are questions that are implicit in Crime and Punishment – the reason the novel works is because you cannot come away from it without seeing how seemingly arbitrary Raskolnikov’s punishment really is, how easily things could have turned out differently. Dostoyevsky’s great achievement is that he manages to suggest that there may be no meaning to the universe, manages to plant the seed of that doubt deep within you, without proving or disproving the point either way. The closing note of Crime and Punishment is, despite everything, a note of doubt.

Allen, by contrast, has no doubts. To him, it is clear that the world truly is about chance and that it is, in fact, better to be lucky than to be good. Match Point is an exploration of this alternate path, this road not taken from Crime and Punishment – Raskolnikov’s escape or punishment has nothing to do with the justice of his case, it is simply a matter of chance. This makes the last half an hour of the movie rich with meaning, loaded with ethical and philosophical ideas, and altogether an engrossing watch. And despite a few missteps in between (one execrable scene involving the return of the dead, for instance) Allen delivers a taut, gripping narrative here – combining a swift, nervous energy, with moments of awkward, almost neurotic suspense. The last half hour of Match Point is a mesmerising watch, and easily one of the best things Allen has done for a long time. Hitchcock would have been proud of him.

Unfortunately the first half of the movie doesn’t match up to the dramatic tension of the second. Allen has many skills, but portraying sexual tension on screen is not one of them, and his dialogue writing, while unexceptionable otherwise, is incapable of delivering passionate intensity. As the two central characters of the plot (played competently by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers [1] and Scarlett Johansson) enter a downward spiral of illicit lust, what comes through on screen feels more contrived than spontaneous, like a grotesque caricature of the overwhelming desire we are supposed to be seeing. Like some fifteen year old’s cliched version of sexual heat. Perhaps it’s because it’s a Woody Allen movie, but the inherent silliness of human passion is never very far from the surface here, and there are scenes in the early part of the movie (including one horrendous love-making in a field in the rain – shudder!) that feel almost like parodies of the real thing.

The result of this is that the first half of the movie seems to go on for too long, and never seems entirely credible. One would, of course, need to have anti-freeze in one’s veins not to be able to see how Scarlett Johansson could be a serious temptation for any man, but the grand passion between these two never comes completely alive and so it’s only when their relationship starts to fall apart that your interest in the happenings on screen begins to revive. Allen draws out some fairly ham-handed ironies contrasting the position of Rhys-Meyers with his wife (played ably by Emily Mortimer) and his mistress, but these are amusing more than funny, and there is very little else in the movie to interest one.

Oh, and that’s the other thing – this is an almost entirely humourless movie. There are a few neat moments, and one obligatory line about compatible neuroses, but that’s about it. And while many of Allen’s familiar vices are back – a fascination with expensive interiors; lots of sparkling little dinner conversations, effortlessly mingling the trivial with the profound; gorgeous music playing in the background (Caruso replaces Billy Holiday here, but the scratchy sound of the LP is still the same) – this doesn’t really feel like a Woody Allen film. If it weren’t for the familiar white on black credits mentioning Juliet Taylor, Charles H Joffe and Jack Rollins, I would have said this was more likely to be something made by Christopher Nolan than by Allen.

Bottomline: Match Point is, undoubtably, a great personal triumph for Allen – the first time that he’s made a ‘serious’ movie that is not entirely still-born. It’s not by any stretch of imagination a great film, but it’s an above average film, gripping in parts, and if there is any film-maker who has earned the right to indulge his little fancies, surely Allen has. One can only hope, however, that the success of Match Point helps to exorcise the demon rather than encourage it and we can go back to the Allen who makes the brilliantly funny films only he can make. Match Point is a good enough movie – but we don’t need Woody Allen to make it.

[1] Also known, to my female acquaintances, as that dreamy coach from Bend it like Beckham

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