Saturday, April 20, 2024

“Coup de Chance,” Reviewed: Woody Allen Reëmerges with a Movie About Getting Away with Murder

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The most recent movie directed by Woody Allen, “Coup de Chance,” which opens in theatres this Friday, April 5th, is the most prominent theatrical release that any of Allen’s films have had since “Wonder Wheel,” six and a half years ago. But it’s not for lack of trying. In the meantime, Allen has been busy. In August, 2017, he signed a four-picture deal with Amazon. He started shooting “A Rainy Day in New York” a month later, with a cast that included such prominent actors as Timothée Chalamet, Elle Fanning, Selena Gomez, Rebecca Hall, and Liev Schreiber. But, that October, allegations of sexual abuse and harassment emerged against Harvey Weinstein—many of which were reported by Allen’s son Ronan Farrow, in The New Yorker—and against other powerful Hollywood men, energizing the #MeToo movement. That December, days after the release of “Wonder Wheel,” Allen’s daughter Dylan Farrow, who had accused Allen of molesting her when she was a child, published a piece in the Los Angeles Times in which she went into detail regarding those accusations and asked why, at a time when other movie men accused of sexual misdeeds were being removed from positions of power, Allen appeared to continue his career with impunity. (Allen has always denied the allegations.)

After Dylan’s L.A. Times piece appeared, Amazon sought to terminate its deal with Allen. A small distributor, MPI Media Group, which specializes in horror films and stock footage and hadn’t had a significant theatrical release in more than a decade, acquired “A Rainy Day in New York” and released it in just a handful of theaters in the U.S. before bringing it to streaming services (including Amazon). Several of the film’s actors, notably Chalamet, Gomez, and Hall, expressed regret for having worked with Allen (as did others, including Greta Gerwig, Elliot Page, and Colin Firth). Allen’s next movie, “Rifkin’s Festival,” starring Wallace Shawn, was filmed in Spain, in 2019 and was again released by MPI, mainly via streaming. That company is also distributing “Coup de Chance”—its title means “stroke of luck”—but, this time around, it’s arranging a more vigorous theatrical release.

Made in France with well-known French actors, “Coup de Chance” is a comedic thriller on a prominent theme throughout Allen’s œuvre: getting away with murder. On a Paris street, a young French woman named Fanny (Lou de Laâge) bumps into Alain (Niels Schneider), a friend from high school. They rekindle their friendship and then start an affair; Fanny’s husband, Jean (Melvil Poupaud), suspects her of infidelity, hires a private eye, learns the details, and hires hit men to get rid of Alain in such a way that his body is never found. Fanny, heartbroken, thinks that her lover has simply abandoned her without warning, but her mother, Camille (Valérie Lemercier), suspecting foul play, conducts her own investigation, and plans to inform the police. When Jean gets wind of his mother-in-law’s intentions, he arranges to have her killed, too.

Allen’s movies have often displayed an obsession with the nature of evil, a fascination with those who are able to do evil and go on living normally—whose powers of compartmentalization, rationalization, or simple self-righteousness are stronger than their scruples. “Coup de Chance” is only one of the more brazen films in this vein. In “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” from 1989, a philandering husband conspires in the murder of his mistress; that he gets off scot-free is cited (by a character played by Allen) as evidence of the injustice and unfairness of the universe. Allen addressed the theme again in “Match Point,” from 2005, a movie in which he doesn’t appear, and this time—from the other side of the divide in his life, post-accusations—he approaches the subject with a triumphalist sense of grace. It’s the story of a down-and-out antihero who gets away with murder and thereby ends up a rich and successful socialite—a man on the make, eluding his fate by way of a concatenation of accidents that line up like a perverse theodicy. In that film, Allen no longer frets about the dark injustice of the world; he sees it as, in effect, God’s will to enable a man with big dreams and desires to realize them unimpeded by the petty mechanisms of human justice.

The quandary that Allen’s own troubled situation poses for his work—for his moralistic art—is dramatized in the 2002 comedy “Hollywood Ending,” in which Allen plays a director whose career is threatened when, the night before shooting a film that’s supposed to be his much-needed comeback, he’s suddenly struck blind (psychosomatically, as it turns out). What he does is pretend to direct while blind—an impairment that’s both the spark for some of Allen’s greatest physical comedy and a keen tragicomic metaphor for the desire not to see, not to bear witness, and for the artistic pretense that results.

That febrile, antic movie mines another of Allen’s longtime motifs: the plot point of hiding evidence. In “Scoop,” from 2006, one of his liveliest latter-day comedies, only the supernatural intervention of a dead investigative journalist brings crucial evidence to light. There, a man has murdered a woman who, he says, was blackmailing him; when Allen’s character, a magician, joins the investigation, he, too, gets killed. In short, the movie’s subject is the danger of opening one’s mouth and not keeping omertà. The big reveal of “Blue Jasmine,” from 2013, is that a middle-aged woman—whose husband was about to leave her for a nineteen-year-old—denounced him to the F.B.I. for financial chicanery. In “Irrational Man,” from 2015, the protagonist murders a judge who ruled, he thinks, unjustly in a family-court case, and nearly gets away with it—not hesitating to bump off someone he suspects of planning to turn him in. One of Allen’s strongest films, the ink-black tragedy “Cassandra’s Dream,” from 2008, centers on a rich businessman’s attempt to kill a business partner who is preparing to testify against him. In “Wonder Wheel,” from 2017, a woman who informs against her mobster husband spends the rest of her life in fear and on the run.

The crux of “Coup de Chance” is what Camille plans to do with the information that she gleans. But what tips her off in the first place to the possibility of Jean’s foul play isn’t physical evidence but a bit of gossip. Jean, a decade or two older than Fanny, is rich, powerful, and well connected—he’s a financier of a murky sort who tells Fanny only, “I help the rich get richer.” But his mysteries go deeper. Years ago, Jean’s business partner vanished without a trace; Jean profited greatly as a result. At the time, Jean came under suspicion but he was never officially implicated; now he dismisses those accusations as “a few weeks of gossip,” and calls his accusers “paranoid.” Yet in his social circles there are whispers that Jean indeed had a hand in the disappearance. One woman says, “Thank God for gossip. Without it we’d be stuck with real facts.” But, belatedly getting wind of the rumors, Camille notes their foreshadowing of Alain’s disappearance, and her D.I.Y. snooping generates both suspense and comedy.

The film’s skitlike-ness is emphasized in its form, with its many single-take scenes and long takes, which in effect treat the settings like stages and the actors like theatre actors. Allen clearly loves Paris—at least the cosseted parts, and he seems unable to see any other kind. Even Alain’s relative bohemia of a furnished sublet is absurdly comfortable; if Jean’s circle of bankers and politicians reeks of money, Alain’s artistic one is perfumed by it. The characters are stereotypes living their lives stereotypically; there’s no verve to the filmmaking. Moreover, Allen doesn’t speak French, and it shows in the actors’ performances, which, for the most part, come off as undirected—skilled, of course, but flailing in a void. Yet the movie, aesthetically as lumpy as a latke, nonetheless has a weird and lurid vigor that comes from an altogether different source: Allen’s pleasure in his own imagination—his delight in inventing the plot. Though the movie’s actual protagonist is Fanny, it’s Jean who gets the bulk of Allen’s attention—and Camille who gets its finest role.

To put perhaps too fine a point on it, the mother-in-law in “Coup de Chance” is a stand-in for Mia Farrow, Allen’s current mother-in-law and his former partner, whose accusations, more than thirty years ago, had led to investigations of Allen. Yet, as indicated in the title of the revelatory four-part documentary “Allen v. Farrow,” from 2021—which refers to the custody suit that Allen brought against Mia Farrow after Dylan’s accusations were disclosed—the focal point of Allen’s defense, and of his public hostility, has always been his ex-partner. The vigor of Allen’s characterization of Camille, and of Lemercier’s performance, comes from the fact that “Coup de Chance” is essentially another of Allen’s Mia Farrow movies. The character has the impulsive energy displayed by Farrow in “Broadway Danny Rose,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” and the erstwhile couple’s other films together.

Allen’s films have always been sketchlike, but when he was younger they nonetheless seemed ampler. They were filled with first-person and nearly present-tense experience and a nuanced view of his own milieu, which was both at the center of the New York cultural-social set and a myth being made in real time. He was the nebbish hero, a man about town who floated above it, in tune with his carefully curated setting, and yet, with his noli-me-tangere chill, he also seemed somehow unreal. Much of the tension in his better films comes from a certain air of theatricality; it’s also why his more sombre-toned movies were rarely satisfying—he couldn’t keep his face quite straight enough. But his films’ sketchlike quality allows his voice to come through, directly, on the soundtrack, in action, even in direct address to the camera. The fiction was a flimsy dramatic framework for his voice, which, in his recent movies, has become strained, vain, confined as if to an official self-promotional, self-justifying role.

“A Rainy Day in New York” is Allen at his most perfunctory—yet also at his most enraged. Chalamet plays a trust-fund Bartleby, a chirpily discontented college student with the unlikely name of Gatsby Welles, whose girlfriend (Fanning) is sent by the school paper to interview a big-time middle-aged director (Schreiber). In short order, the director hits on her, a screenwriter (Jude Law) hits on her, and a heartthrob star (Diego Luna) hits on her. Allen’s dramatic assertions about the lusts of movie men for a nubile young woman are matched by his contemptuous depiction of her as a ditz out of her depth, especially as compared to the soulful rebel Gatsby, who throws her over for a younger girl (Gomez). (Along the way, Allen also jabs at journalists as unprincipled gossipmongers.)

Above all, “A Rainy Day in New York” is a story about every middle-aged Hollywood man who pursues a twenty-one-year-old woman, which is to say, it’s Allen’s own version, or inversion, or perversion, of the phrase “me too” as a form of whataboutism: yes, he has had relationships with much younger women (including Soon-Yi Previn, whom he married), and, yes, his films are rife with May-December relationships, as in “Manhattan” and “Husbands and Wives,” but whoever would criticize him should also cast stones at the whole movie business. And the world did, in effect, with the #MeToo movement.

“Rifkin’s Festival,” shot in 2019, is the story of an old man—a former film professor, played by Wallace Shawn, who sought the will-o’-the-wisp of art and culture and ended up a dried-out and lonely husk. The drama is sodden and mechanical, but what gives the movie a glimmer of life is Rifkin’s fantasy world: he imagines himself into comical parodies of scenes from classic movies that he loves, including “Jules and Jim,” “Breathless,” “Persona,” “The Exterminating Angel,” and “Citizen Kane.” In the light of Rifkin’s diffident anguish, the heartfelt whimsy of these scenes plays like Allen’s own nostalgic reminiscence of his early, funny stuff—and of the way that his life used to be.

In “Coup de Chance,” Allen borrows from another classic, John Ford’s Western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the story of a miscreant who has long evaded the law but eventually gets his extrajudicial, extramoral comeuppance. The ending of “Coup de Chance” offers a tragicomic surprise that echoes the key plot point—the shootout—of Ford’s film. Allen has suggested that “Coup de Chance,” his fiftieth feature, may be his last; if so, he goes out with a self-excoriating bang. ♦



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