ⓘ Love and Death
Love and Death is a 1975 comedy film by Woody Allen. It is a satire on Russian literature starring Allen and Diane Keaton as Boris and Sonja, Russians living during the Napoleonic Era who engage in mock-serious philosophical debates. Allen considered it the funniest film he had made up until that point.
When Napoleon James Tolkan invades Austria during the Napoleonic Wars, Boris Grushenko Woody Allen, a coward and pacifist scholar, is forced to enlist in the Russian army. Desperate and disappointed after hearing the news that Sonja Diane Keaton, his cousin twice removed, is to wed a herring merchant, he inadvertently becomes a war hero. Boris returns and marries the recently widowed Sonja, who does not want to marry him, but promises him that she will, in order to make him happy for one night, when she thinks that he is about to be killed in a duel. To her surprise and disappointment, he survives the duel. Their marriage is filled with philosophical debates but no money. Their life together is interrupted when Napoleon invades the Russian Empire. Boris wants to flee but his wife, angered that the invasion will interfere with their plans to start a family that year, conceives a plot to assassinate Napoleon at his headquarters in Moscow. Boris and Sonja debate the matter with some degree of philosophical doublespeak, and Boris reluctantly goes along with it. They fail to kill Napoleon and Sonja escapes arrest while Boris is executed, despite being told by a vision that he will be pardoned.
Allen shot the film in France and Hungary, where he had to deal with bad weather, spoiled negatives, food poisoning, physical injuries and communication difficulties. This made the director swear never to shoot a movie outside the United States again. However, starting in 1996 with Everyone Says I Love You, Allen did in fact shoot a number of films abroad.
Coming between Allens Sleeper and Annie Hall, Love and Death is in many respects an artistic transition between the two. Allen pays tribute to the humor of The Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and Charlie Chaplin throughout the film.
The dialogue and scenarios parody Russian novels, particularly those by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, such as The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, The Idiot and War and Peace. This includes a dialogue between Boris and his father in which each line alludes to, or is composed entirely of, Dostoyevsky titles.
The use of Prokofiev on the soundtrack adds to the Russian flavor of the film. Prokofievs "Troika" from the Lieutenant Kije Suite is featured prominently, for the films opening and closing credits and in selected scenes in the film when a "bouncy" theme is required. The battle scene is accompanied with music from Prokofievs Alexander Nevsky cantata. Boris is marched to his execution to the "March" from Prokofievs The Love for Three Oranges.
Some of the humor is straightforward; other jokes rely on the viewers awareness of classic literature or contemporary European cinema. For example, the final shot of Keaton is a reference to Ingmar Bergmans Persona. The sequence with the stone lions is a parody of Sergei Eisensteins Battleship Potemkin, while the Russian battle against Napoleons army heavily parodies the same films "Odessa steps" sequence. Bergmans The Seventh Seal is parodied several times, including during the climax.
The film grossed over $20 million in North America, making it the 18th highest grossing picture of 1975 theatrical rentals were $5 million.
At Rotten Tomatoes, 20 out of 20 critics - including three of the sites "top critics" - consider the film "fresh", with a 100% rating and a weighted average of 8.13/10. The sites consensus reads: "Woody Allen plunks his neurotic persona into a Tolstoy pastiche and yields one of his funniest films, brimming with slapstick ingenuity and a literary inquiry into subjects as momentous as Love and Death ".
At the 25th Berlin International Film Festival in 1975, the film won the Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution.
Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars:
Miss Keaton is very good in Love and Death, perhaps because here she gets to establish and develop a character, instead of just providing a foil, as shes often done in other Allen films. There are dozens of little moments when their looks have to be exactly right, and they almost always are. There are shadings of comic meaning that could have gotten lost if all we had were the words, and there are whole scenes that play off facial expressions. Its a good movie to watch just for that reason, because its been done with such care, love and lunacy.
Gene Siskel awarded a full four stars and wrote, "Woody Allen is simply terrific in Love and Death. To my mind, its his funniest film. He plays to his greatest strength gag line dialog and stays away from what has limited his other movies an attempt to develop a story." Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film "Woody Allens grandest work" and "side-splitting." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times declared, "Thin but likable just about sums it up." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post found the film "funny with remarkable and delightful consistency." Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker thought that Woody Allen and Diane Keaton "have become an unbeatable new team at pacing haywire intellectual backchat. Their style works as if each of them were a less mock-assertive Groucho Marx with a duplicate of him to play against. For such a recklessly funny film, the impression is weirdly serene." Geoff Brown of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that "the occasional longueurs and dud jokes never prove fatal to the movies overall success; to use the description Boris applies to his father, Woody Allen is a major loon and Love and Death provides a fine showcase for his talent."
In September 2008, in a poll held by Empire magazine, the film was voted as the 301st greatest film out of a list of 500. In October 2013, the film was voted by the Guardian readers as the seventh-best film directed by Woody Allen.