Love and Death sees Allen at a crossroads between his earlier slapstick farces and the soon-to-be whimsical, wistful flights of fancy that would mark his later, more “mature” productions, to use the conventional schematization. Faced with the choice of doubling down on the past or moving forward, he defiantly, quizzically rides two horses with inconstant passion and takes both directions to his heart’s content. For if Love and Death is a relentlessly immature, pointedly foolish construction, it is also perhaps more fun than any director has ever had knocking “maturity” down to size, playing with a burgeoning reputation as a “serious” filmmaker even before such a stature was set in stone. Love and Death saw Allen tired of mocking space opera and the state of the world. He decided to look to the only other place he knew, the past, his personal canon, and take a pitchfork to everything he loved: Tolstoy, Bergman, and everything that took Tolstoy a few inches forward over a hundred years so it could flower into Bergman. Not that Tolstoy and Bergman have anything to do with each other, but in Allen’s mind they can if he wants them to.
Oh the things he does with Bergman here! Allen was always a highly artificial director, in the sense that he was prone to finding deeply human emotions in artifice and self-consciously commenting on the ways in which artifice allowed his roiling internal neuroticism to bubble up right onto the surface of the screen. With Love and Death he took to kicking the artifice of the European Art House right into the self-seriousness of Russian literature and spicing the whole thing up a few notches with his own verbal gamesmanship and playful neurosis.
If the film has a narrative, it takes great pains to willfully avoid it. There’s something about Allen’s schlubby Russian neophyte in love with Diane Keaton’s much-desired fellow peasant in a quintessentially chintzy looking movie-set town, the kind that could only exist in the “Old Country”, rather than in any real geography that might contest such nostalgic mysticism. Then when things are busy not going Allen’s way, he’s called off for war and becomes a pseudo-hero for surviving a particularly dastardly battle against his own best efforts. Yet narrative is not the name of the game. In fact, Allen’s first stylistic coup is to construct his film with the same chintzy, vacant narrative formlessness that populated so many lesser art house wannabees from the ’50s and ’60s of Allen’s formative film years, something he does with temperamental militance and a joyful eye for the absurdism inherent to loosening up the confines of story to the point where they dissipate to the vanishing point.
Things prance even further uphill from here though. As is the case with any comedy, and in particular any of Allen’s earlier episodic films, it becomes increasingly difficult to comment on the film without scene-stealing, but the film is so replete with highlights, structured as it is with the spirit of improvisational jazz that skips and doubles back on itself with mile-a-minute animation and vivacity, naming a few hardly seems immoral. Many of the film’s highlights arrive when Allen really goes out of his way to recapture a pastiche of life in the Art House. The stunted philosophical conversations that abstract emotion into tired intellectualism shine brightest, especially when juxtaposed against the film’s opening tryst with faux nostalgia as Allen spitfires verbal nonsense with such arch seriousness it can’t but bust a gut. The “piece of land” jab at materialist Marxism had me going for a good while too, and, speaking of which, the loquacious “wheat” monologue has to be among the best, and most vicious, satires of the inessential tiresomeness of everyone’s favorite film technique: the inner monologue.
Allen’s smarts extend well beyond dialogue though, few of his admirers giving him his deserved credit as a formalist. The sloppy, endearing visuals, again, bear the film’s greatest fruit as they contrast with the detached irony of the dialogue, drawing out verbal-aural tension in operating primarily as a deliberately fake attempt at a ’70s film trying to imitate Bergman without knowing what it’s doing. More specific moments tackle left-field film stylings from a purely visual point of view. The mid-film battle, for instance, is a wonderfully droll half-remembered recollection of Orson Welles’ impressionist, interpersonal war scene from Chimes at Midnight, and Allen also affords a particularly draconian punishment to Soviet montage. Everything on down to the music, indulgent and usually unfitting for every scene, trades on absurdism and deliberately mocks hackwork filmmaking that recreates the past in a bid for authenticity without a clue. When Allen overextends visual tricks straight out of midnight cinema – crash zooms and piercing close-ups – I think my mind hits the void.
Allen would go on to make better films (at least three superior efforts in the dramedy department over the next ten years), but he would never again distill his increasingly idiosyncratic intellectualism into a package as primal and directly spastic as he did here. Never again would an Allen film feel as alive, as peppy, as active, and as playful. More bluntly, he never made anything this funny, nor did he try to. Love and Death is cinematic lightning-in-a-bottle, a slyboots with the crackling spirit of stand-up comedy. It is the purest cinematic distillation of Allen’s unfettered mind in a constant, unending spiral every which way it can find.