Monday, July 8, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY        B+                       
USA  (88 mi)  1982  d:  Woody Allen

Quiet! There’s a man in the next room singing The Lord’s Prayer.

I'm not a poet. I don't die for love. I work on Wall Street.    
—Andrew (Woody Allen)

There are no ghosts except in Shakespeare, and many of those are more real than many people I know.  
—Leopold (José Ferrar)

Apparently this beautifully realized film was way ahead of its time, as it received mediocre reviews at best, many dismissing it as a mere trifle, including Richard Schickel who called it “trivial,” becoming a box office bomb, one of Allen’s first financial failures, yet it’s a delightful film, the first of 13 films made with Mia Farrow, filling the shoes of Diane Keaton who was away shooting REDS (1981).  While by no means in the upper echelon of the best Allen films, this reverie remains one of his happier efforts.   We often forget how funny he is, and how naturally humor once graced the screen in his earlier films, as both then and now Allen’s viewing audience takes his comedy gifts for granted.  The film is largely overlooked today, contemptuously dismissed at the time with a sneering derision, called a rip-off of Bergman’s SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (1955), Renoir’s A DAY IN THE COUNTRY (1936), THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939), PICNIC IN THE GRASS (1959), or Éric Rohmer’s collection of Six Moral Tales (1963 – 1972), but none of those are as funny or have nearly as much silly fun as Allen does with this film.  Rather than play a featured lead character, Allen is only one of a collective ensemble cast, where it just so happens that all give standout performances.  A rare departure outside the city of New York, the film was shot in the countryside an hour away, where a set was actually constructed on the John D. Rockefeller Estate in Pocantico Hills located next to the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, all the ingredients needed to make this pastoral fantasy. 

Mostly a riff on the sophisticated European comedy of manners and loosely based on Bergman’s SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, a legendary film of razor sharp wit and comic timing, similarly taking place at a weekend in the country, eventually turning into an elaborate partner-swapping bedroom farce that exposes pretensions and insecurities along the way.  In a similar vein, without any real exploration of social class other than to accept one’s fortunate position to be a part of the middle to upper class, Allen’s is a much more lighthearted romp through the woods in the early 1900’s where bickering characters are constantly on edge in an atmosphere fraught with sexual tension, alerted by an ever increasing sense of paranoia, as intellectual theories are vehemently protested, hidden secrets are zealously protected, deceiving lovers camouflage their latent desires for others, and the entire cast is in a heightened state of sexual arousal, usually frustrated by an unexpected turn of events, hardly the relaxed weekend saunter they expected, where roving eyes lead to a choreography of misdirection and a series of continuously embarrassing missteps.  But also, true of any legitimate love fantasy, this film lays out multiple paths for the promise of that all-consuming rapturous love.  The film takes place in the summer home of Allen and Mary Steenburgen as Andrew and Adrian, a marital challenged couple whose non-existent sex life (as Adrian develops migraines during every attempt at sex) reveals their neurotic dysfunction, where he’s a crackpot inventor who diverts all his pent-up sexual frustrations into his wacky inventions.  They invite two other couples for a weekend party, Maxwell (Tony Roberts), Andrew’s best friend who believes “marriage is the death of hope,” a doctor that uses his authoritative position to hit on every available female, and a nurse he chooses almost at random, the free spirited Dulcy, Julie Hagerty, something of a revelation in the role, culminating in the weekend marriage of mismatched lovers Leopold and Ariel, José Ferrar and Mia Farrow. 

Leopold is the picture of egotistical hubris, a self-professed genius seen in an opening classroom sequence arrogantly refuting all claims to the metaphysical, a strict 17th century Descartes rationalist denying all existence other than what can be scientifically proven, which makes him an easy-to-hate 20th century target, as he’s a pompous, overbearing, and overcontrolling ass that has no right whatsoever to marry the fair Ariel, a beautiful and overly sensitive former convent student that all men fall in love with.  The beauty of the film is how innocently Allen expresses the first pangs of love with Mia Farrow, given a languorous pace, set in a relaxed pastoral setting, where a mixed group of city slickers with plenty of intellectual baggage come to spend a restful weekend in the country, where intellectual gamesmanship and sexual drive are synonymous with the male ego, where the magical elements of a mysterious moonlit forest continually beckon, where the characters spend their time frolicking in the woods while trying to unwrap the many secrets of the night, all of which is a diversion for what they really want, which is to get laid, preferably with the most attractive person they see.  Everyone seems to be on erotic edge, where love is literally in the air, and all are similarly susceptible to the whims of Cupid’s arrows (one character literally takes an arrow to the heart).  Making beautiful use of Mendelssohn’s transcendent classical music, mixed with bucolic landscapes exquisitely shot by Gordon Willis, creating a pastoral idyllic in the country where everything exists in harmony, including swans, rabbits, turtles, birds in flight, buzzing bees, and Bambi bounding through the woods, it’s a movie with recurrent midnight meetings at the brook under the glow of the moonlight, a place where rapture awaits.  Blending fantasy with the surreal, this is a gorgeous looking, well crafted film with a positively delightful musical score, where there’s a feeling of affirmation and curiosity and young love in the air that is truly bewitching.  Personally, I rue the day that Allen and Farrow separated, as this is a wonderful example of how they brought out the best in one another.  

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