If you’re looking for an inviolable law of cinema, one that you can more or less can take to the bank, the Venice Film Festival just confirmed an ironically delightful one. It is this: Murder agrees with Woody Allen. We already knew that, of course. We knew it from “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” a drama that was shocking when it came out in 1989 — and if you see it today, it’s still shocking, because the theme of the movie isn’t just that ordinary people commit murder (we see that in movies every day). It’s that they seem disturbingly ordinary even as they’re doing it, which is a bit frightening. Martin Landau, as a mild bourgeois ophthalmologist who hires someone to kill off his mistress, seemed to be playing the squirmy essence of every amateur criminal, and the fact that he got away with it was the unsettling part. It made you think: How many people like that are out there?
“Match Point,” Allen’s 2005 romantic thriller, was a related but different sort of movie, one that brought off something even more subversive. It put you in the shoes of a total scoundrel (a social climber played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), got you to swoon along with him at his new brother-in-law’s girlfriend (played by Scarlett Johansson), and then completed the adulterous journey with a scene of homicide that would have left Alfred Hitchcock tingling.
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“Coup de Chance,” the new Woody Allen film that premiered today at Venice, completes what I guess we can now call Allen’s “Killer Inside Me” trilogy. It’s another drama involving an act of murder instigated by a character who strikes us as too civilized and “normal” to do such a thing. But even as Allen offers another variation on the theme, he has made a movie that’s as different from the other two as they were from each other. Set in Paris, “Coup de Chance” was made with a cast of French actors (the movie is in French, with subtitles), and it’s rooted in a jaded Continental knowingness about matters of love, marriage, adultery…and getting rid of the people who are gumming up your life. The film has a jaunty tone of deadpan glee, abetted by its soundtrack of ’60s jazz nuggets, notably Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.” It’s not a comedy, but as you watch it you can almost see Woody Allen standing off to the side, chuckling at the human folly he’s showing you.
In recent years, the drama of Allen’s career has all been offscreen, related to the refusal of companies to distribute his movies in the U.S., all due to the accusations of sexual abuse made against him by his daughter, Dylan. He has not had a film released in America since “Wonder Wheel,” in 2017. That means that the two films he has made since, “Rifkin’s Festival” (2020) and “A Rainy Day in New York” (2019), have essentially not been shown by exhibitors in America — but I’ve seen them, and they are dreadful. Both are comedies that feel like Allen going through the motions of jokes, themes, and urban “intellectual” tics he’s done a thousand times before. He’s now 87, and when it comes to comedy it really has begun to feel like he’s a squeezed-out lemon.
But drama! That may be another story. As you watch “Coup de Chance,” you can see that the characters occupy a milieu familiar from Allen’s beloved Manhattan (sprawling tasteful apartments, a kind of flip chattering-class effervescence), but they don’t wax on about the meaning of life and the decay of contemporary culture and all those other once-vital, now-creaky Allen obsessions. They’re actually happier than that. It’s a relief, and a pleasure, to see him write a script that isn’t rooted in “neurosis,” that’s full of vibrant players who keep surprising us.
At least one of them, if you squint, might look like “the Woody Allen character.” That would be Alain (Niels Schneider), a self-deprecating fiction writer in a thrift-shop jacket, with an attitude of romantic savoir faire. In the opening scene, he’s walking down a crowded street when he spots Fanny (Lou de Laâge), a woman he knew casually back when they went to high school together in the U.S. Maybe he wasn’t so casual: He was in love with her — from afar. He doesn’t take long to let her know this. But the actor, Niels Schneider, isn’t doing some antic, wavy-armed French Woody Allen impersonation. He’s enthusiastic and trés cute, like a rumpled Justin Timberlake, which is why Fanny agrees to meet him for lunch. Well, maybe also because she’s starting to have a doubt or two about her marriage.
Fanny was hitched once before (to another bohemian — they’re her type), but he turned out to be a loser, and she allowed herself to be swept up into a wealthier echelon when she met Jean (Melvil Poupaud), a sharky businessman who treats her like a precious jewel. In the bad American version of this movie I kept imagining (at least, for a few scenes), Woody Allen would have cued us to see Jean as a possessive jerk. He’s certainly possessive, but Allen, writing his zestiest dialogue in years, also makes him intelligent and romantic: a cad, perhaps, but a dynamic and likable one. We can totally see why Fanny married him. How he makes his money, though, is a matter of some mystery (he tells her that he makes rich people richer), and there’s a notorious story, one that was reported in the papers, about a business associate of Jean’s who just…disappeared.
Fanny loves Jean, and enjoys her new luxe life, but she’s a little out of sorts about it: the country hunting weekends she finds boring, all the gossip with his rich friends about money. She feels at home in Alain’s (rather spacious) “bohemian” apartment, and as soon as he’s making her spaghetti there, they kiss. Their affair has begun, and it’s serious.
So serious that Fanny, suddenly taking long lunches, doesn’t cover her tracks too well. Lou de Laâge looks a lot like Rachel McAdams, and has a level-headed sensuality that’s delicate and compelling. We can see that Fanny is truly torn; she doesn’t quite know what she’s doing, which is what lends drama to the affair. The other thing that lends drama to it is that Jean, a sly dog, can sense something is up. He hires a private detective to follow her, and the affair is uncovered in about three minutes. Jean is broken up. The question is: What is he going to do about it?
I will give it away (without giving away anything else — and there are a lot of twists to come). He is going to hire the same thugs he got to kill off his business associate to murder Alain and make his body disappear into the Atlantic Ocean. No muss, no fuss. Why is this morbid twist — the decision to snuff someone we like — exhilarating? Precisely because it’s so dastardly. It doesn’t play as a “movie twist.” It plays like someone in real life, or maybe someone out of a Patricia Highsmith novel, doing something unspeakable, the sort of act that makes our collective tabloid jaw drop. And that can be part of the power of movies.
But “Coup de Chance,” like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point,” is also a moral drama. It wants to weigh the consequences of Jean’s action. Can he get away with murder? It sure looks like it. And what will the elimination of Alain do to his relationship with Fanny? Make it worse, or make it better? That answer, in a way, is part of how the film takes the measure of the crime.
The title of “Coup de Chance” means “Stroke of Luck,” and it refers to the theme of luck that snakes its way through the movie. Alain keeps insisting that all of life is luck. Jean says that there is no luck, that we make our own. The truth lies somewhere in between. And the way this plays out in the movie is absorbing, thrilling, and cheekily satisfying. The question that must now be asked is: Will Woody Allen get lucky with “Coup de Chance”? He has made what is easily his best movie since “Blue Jasmine” (10 years ago), maybe since “Match Point” (18 years ago). It’s his 50th feature, and he is saying it may be his last. Should it be released in America? As a culture, I wouldn’t be too surprised if we found ourselves debating whether the time has come to give Woody Allen, as a filmmaker, another coup de chance.
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