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17th October 2012

Woody Allen: the most charming egoist in modern cinema

Jessie Cohen on egos, gender and what’s next for the movie-making wonder

At age 76, Woody Allen has just starred in his most recent comedy-romance To Rome With Love. He plays his signature role as an adorable neurotic – a cinematic doppelgänger of … himself. Fitting with most of Allen’s films, in To Rome With Love the male psyche is powerfully explored, if not radically indulged. To facilitate a launching into the male mind, the female characters resemble fantasy figures played by Hollywood’s finest from Scarlett Johansson to Penelope Cruz. Allen’s women beguile and ooze sex-appeal. There is no attempt to make them ‘real women’ – that would defeat the point.

Allen’s other recent comedy-romance, Midnight in Paris, also exemplifies the “Allenian” formula of a male-centred drama in which women are objectified and, to bolster the concept of cinema-as-realisation-of-male-fantasy, the films’ locations are deeply romanticised. In the film, Owen Wilson plays an angst-ridden writer (like Allen) who is enraptured by his own genius. During a scene of Paris in the sunshine, Rachel McAdam’s character turns to Wilson and tells it straight.

“You’re in love with a fantasy,” to which Wilson unconvincingly replies, “I’m in love with you.” before the film explores his estrangement from McAdams and drifts into a fantasy narrative. In a similar exposé of the male ego, Allen’s character in To Rome With Love is put in his place by his psychotherapist wife who says that he lacks the usual psychological makeup of an ego, a superego and an id – he just has three ids. No one lays bare male egotism and self-deception quite so charmingly.

In Midnight in Paris, the streets of Paris serve as a portal for a love affair that takes place between a man and his imagination. To contrast with Wilson’s character’s creativity and openness, McAdams plays a stiff-upper-lip woman who couldn’t understand romance if it slapped her in the face. Comme d’habitude, Allen uses the female to counter-balance the man’s temperament. She exists in relation to him.

In To Rome With Love Allen interweaves a number of stories which spin off the heteronormative axis. One of the main narrative strands is a surrealist encounter between a man and woman, played by Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page, in which Alec Baldwin and Eisenberg critique the finer details of Page’s character right in front of her while she is deaf to their scrutiny. They label her a performative, narcissistic manipulator and, having collectively sussed her, they explore why it is that Eisenberg remains so attracted to this false ‘creature’. Page’s character exists to be scrutinized and mocked.

Having written, directed or acted in over sixty feature films, it would appear that Allen’s quirk and panache are waining. His fixation on gender dynamics from a particular perspective has now been explored from practically every angle in every predictable ‘romantic’ city, from New York to Paris. As he approaches the tail end of his career, I’d like to see Allen think outside the box for once and direct a gender-bending Sci-Fi feminist utopia, or is that too much to ask?

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