By Armond White
“There’s not a spiritual bone in his body. How could he write books!” an exasperated woman says of her loutish son-in-law in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. The same could be said of Allen, who has yet to show any sign of spiritual sensitivity, only that peculiar New York narcissism that takes pride in claiming its neuroses. Now, in his 30th-odd film, Allen presents another quasi-comic look at contemporary turpitude. It’s the story of a London family’s disintegration: As Sally (Naomi Watts) copes with her parents’ (Gemma Jones and Anthony Hopkins) recent divorce, her own marriage collapses. Allen compounds trouble by paralleling the parents’ middle-aged sexual insecurities with Sally and her American husband Roy’s (Josh Brolin) career anxieties, which lead to more infidelity, distrust and betrayal.
This interpersonal disaster is not an ingenious farce mechanism; it’s what the British call a “cockup.” Allen has transplanted his secularist cynicism, yet, once again, fails to capture a sense of place (the great Vilmos Zsigmond photographs England as if he were no longer the great Vilmos Zsigmond). Allen’s simply spread his virus. Some people laugh at it—nervously or out of habit—mistaking Allen’s comic reputation for a genial intent. But for others, Allen’s misplaced, soured sense of humor has become an unfunny, unending routine.
Happily, the perfect contrast to this faux-European phase of Allen’s interminable career is Criterion’s new box set Presenting Sacha Guitry—an almost official re-introduction of a once beloved filmmaking personality—showcasing four classics recently out of distribution. Writer-director-actor Guitry turned out a number of distinctly personal comic entertainments throughout the mid-20th century (he died in 1958) that not only teased the idea of European sophistication but also exemplified it.
In Guitry’s world, characters are motivated by an itch which not only complicates their immediate lives but may also determine history—as in his epic The Pearls of the Crown (1939), which burlesques English, French and Italian history, even a bit of Africa’s legacy. Through ingeniously connected episodic fables, Guitry illustrates how the Queen of England’s crown got some of its jewels. In essence, Guitry satirized the imperialist ideology that he—and his bon vivant audience—unapologetically enjoyed.
Even his minor masterpiece Quadrille (1938), featuring the flirtatious interplay of a Parisian newspaper editor (Guitry), his actress paramour (Gaby Morlay), their mutual friend (Jacqueline Delubac) and an American movie star (Georges Grey), provides some of the same social observation that informed Jean Renoir’s profound The Rules of the Game the following year. Guitry glossed profundity; his talent was insouciance itself—the cinematic immortalization of his era’s theatrical postures, diction and morality: updating Moliere’s moral ferment and turning it to contemporary fizz.
Quadrille is a condensed roundelay like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, but Guitry’s excellence evokes the swanky world of Hollywood screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey and Twentieth Century—froth that was also culturally, spiritually authentic. Much of its pleasure derives from Guitry’s bulky, strutting persona, his infectious egotism and élan. Guitry was French showbiz’s equivalent to Orson Welles and Noel Coward in the mid-century. Later, only Mel Brooks similarly multitasked (his History of the World, Part I was a vaudevillian version of Pearls of the Crown), yet Brooks never matched Guitry’s grand example of a formally-audacious sophisticate. Re-watching Guitry’s boulevard comedies confirms that Woody Allen’s films aren’t just spiritually deficient—they lack true sophistication.
The real point of Allen’s title You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is to jab at faith as a form of superstition: Sally’s mother visits a fortune teller and clings to the suspicious, paid-for advice. Her pathetic search for guidance is a post-divorce response to insecurity and fear, just like her husband’s dalliance with prostitute/actress Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Each character switches partners and allegiance (aspiring novelist Roy even plagiarizes his best friend), but it all happens in Allen’s degraded appreciation of social climbing. Compare the clownish wrap-up Allen gives his Brit twits with Quadrille’s fugue-like dialogues, in which the characters amusingly articulate their world views, leading to a zesty finale that tilts into musical comedy—a tonal shift and spiritual distillation that was cinema’s damnedest denouement until Godard’s 1965 Band of Outsiders.
Without a spiritual bone, so to speak, Allen’s films have no emotional spine. His depiction/validation of inhumane behavior doesn’t get beyond his fascination with cruelty: Naomi Watts signs off with an ugly castigation against her silly mother that leaves everyone desolate. When Allen rewards the story’s most clownish characters with happiness, it’s an unfelt gimmick that plays the audience cheap. This is the opposite of Quadrille’s dance, the opposite of sophistication. Allen’s preoccupied with how people abuse and deceive each other (as his most recent films have been obsessed with murder).
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger continues the selfishness and lack of faith that in Manhattan once seemed to observe moral decay, and Hannah and Her Sisters became a symptom of. There’s been no real progress since—not with such drab, inert filmmaking. Allen’s made a career out of obtuseness. His narrator says, “Life is sound and fury and means nothing”—misquoted Shakespeare and serious misunderstanding.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Directed by Woody Allen
Runtime: 98 min.
Trackback from your site.