Psychologie, éducation & enseignement spécialisé
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Woody Allen
Or the victory of the cicada upon the ant

English langage


A text of Eugène Michel

« Everyone likes his illusions »(1)
Shadows and Fog (1991)


Allen’s movies have been following me since my youth. I wasn’t passionate about all of them but was rarely disappointed. Suddenly, Midnight in Paris, in 2011, pleased me very much. In a fantastic travel through time, the story offers an anthem to present, love, artistic creativity and writing. The main character shows no interest in money. Then I saw Magic in the Moonlight (2014). I liked it very much too and started to wonder how such a renewal was possible.

Apparently, there’s no mystery in Allen’s inspiration. In the beginning, a very anxious young man escapes via humour. The writing of jokes and plays is his first job. He becomes a stand-up comedian, and then, being fond of cinema since his childhood, he creates funny movies. At thirty years old, he is famous and earns very well his living.

In 1975, at 40 years old, he gives Love and Death, which isn’t a masterpiece. A radical change occurs two years later with Annie Hall. An event. Funnier as never, Allen brings a freudian realism in a modernity as surprising as had been À bout de souffle (1960) by Godard. In Annie Hall, men and women are discussing as equals. Allen said: « For the first time, I had the courage to drop clowneries. »(2) The movie won several Oscars, the success was considerable.

Follow Interiors, Manhattan and Stardust Memories which are opening the new allenian world in its multiple creativity. Then, twelve movies with Mia Farrow are produced, in a bergmannian introspective way. If some of them are experimental, others are describing moving situations: in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), a man is falling in love with his sister-in-law; in September (1987), three lonely lovers tell about their distress.

The ten years elapsing between Annie Hall and Radio Days seem to be the most creative period of Allen’s maturity. Critics talked about cult movies with Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984) or The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).

In 1992, Allen changed producer. Comedy came back, with unequal results. The author-director didn’t mind discouraging his public. The movies of the beginning of 21st century were losing money. Regarding this period, Florence Colombani talks about movies « lazy and misanthropic »(3). She reports that, in 2001, Allen complained about being swindled out of 12 million dollars. He broke up with Jean Doumanian

Then Match Point was released (2005), the first Allen’s movies entirely financed and shot in Europe. It’s an esthetic drama, sensual and pathetic, between Hitchcock and Chabrol, new version of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). A huge success that opens the “European period” where financial results will be largely positive.

The next movie, Scoop, an antithesis of Match Point, is also a success. The critic Gregory Valens wrote about this entertaining movie: « Without any doubt, it’s the expression of the allenian quintessence. » Then, Cassandra’s Dream moralise Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point.

After England, the European trip goes on in Barcelona, Paris and Roma, and concludes in Provence. A new Allen is born, very interested in the behaviours of European youth, as far as frivolities in Barcelona. Midnight in Paris, a masterpiece that is awarded the Oscar of the best original screenplay, gathers 151 million dollars for a 17-million budget (Wikipédia). That won’t help the author to return to the tragedy with Blue Jasmine and Wonder Wheel.

So, an insistent question occurred to me: what makes Allen oscillate, since Interiors (1978), between comedy and drama, narration around a main character and multiple stories, realism and illusion? For the European period, Scoop comes between Match point and Cassandra’s Dream; Blue Jasmine between To Rome with Love and Magic in the Moonlight. I couldn’t figure it was by caprice or to prevent the public from being bored.

A word of Allen helped me. He recently said he was now working with his sister because with family one can be sure to have confidence. Suddenly, I started to think that the key of Allen’s movies could be the problem of trusting. Allen’s vision would be: spontaneously, we trust each other, but it opens wide the door of cheating.

Then, there are three sorts of cheating: affection, finance and illusion. Couples are hiding extramarital relations; thieves are operating skilfully; magicians are playing with our perceptions or we can delude ourselves, trying to escape in imagination.

Humour can be considered as a special kind of cheating. During a joke, we laugh because we have been innocently fooled by a swift creativity.

Starting with Match Point, we get the following table:

Movie Affective cheating Financial cheating Illusion Humour
Match Point x      
Scoop   x x x
Cassandra’s Dream   x x  
Vicky Cristina Barcelona x      
Whatever works x   x  
You will meet a Tall Dark Stranger x   x  
Midnight in Paris x   x x
To Rome with Love x   x x
Blue Jasmine x x    
Magic in the Moonlight   x x x
Irrational Man x   x  
Café Society x x    
Wonder Wheel x x    

We can suppose that the best movies are those that get three crosses: Scoop, Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love and Magic in Moonlight. In those four movies, we will notice that humour is present each time in different ways.

Sexuality, money and art, cheating needs skill and seduction. Those two qualities are always present in Allen’s movies. Their meeting traps the spectator. Under the bewitchment of music, a suspense is quickly built.

The consequences of cheating are very variable, from comedy like Magic in the Moonlight to drama with Cassandra’s Dream. When victims and guilty persons are coming through the problems, which doesn’t always happen, it’s due to flexibility or chance. Woody Allen’s lesson is both optimistic and pessimistic: we can’t live without trust, but for that reason, cheating will always threaten us.

In the terrible competition of life, cheating occupies a strategic position. But nothing is said for ever. Sincerity vs. cheating makes the suspense. Sincerity vs. cheating, isn’t it the dilemma of art? Art isn’t the reality but an image of it that tries to appear like reality. To move us, art must play with our sensations and feelings, to cheat them.

No doubt, Allen is an artist. Each of his movies are built as a piece of art. That’s one of the reasons why he is so appreciated in Europe. So, we can find a constant fluctuation in Allen’s movies between art and reality – the extreme is obviously The Purple Rose of Cairo – which means confrontation between cicadas and ants, artists and craftsmen. That generates two worlds that don’t understand each other, and which are using any kind of weapons to dominate, from inventive skills to subtle seduction.

The cicadas are living in the moment to produce a work of art without worrying about anything else; ants are giving absolute priority to financial security. In both situations, there is a risk and a chance. A risk of poverty and a chance of satisfaction in the first case; a risk of regret and a chance of comfort in the second case.

If ants and cicadas are complementary, conflicts are inevitable. Ants complain about cicadas’s irresponsibility; the ingratitude of ants hurts cicadas. Which is the most sincere? Everyone wants the impossible: ants wish cicadas to find a stable profession, cicadas would like ants to be mécènes without conditions. Many Allen’s movies show this duality, mainly in the confrontation of the “bohème” among wealthy people where individuals are trapped by well-paid jobs. Even in Vicky Christina Barcelona, where the artist is rich, the duality is present with Vicky and Cristina.

Most of Allen’s European movies are showing this duality ant-cicada specially Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris and Magic in the Moonlight. It seems that Woody Allen identifies his artistic vocation with Europe – it’s not a surprise as we know the influence of famous European movie directors upon Allen – but, more precisely, with Mediterranean Europe, far away from oppressive origins.

Allen expresses clearly this dualism in an opposition Southern Europe-cicada / USA-ant. Blue Jasmine and Wonder Wheel, which are two North-American stories, compete in pathos, while the other movies of that period reach serenity and give an impression of lightness because they mainly paint the new generations and the artistic liberation of moral habits. European contemporary individualisation generates some respect for personal freedom. The request that started with Annie Hall seems solved. Quietly, the characters of Midnight in Paris, men and women, tell us about their choice.

Eugène Michel
© Eugène Michel, 2019

With many thanks to my friend Bernard Frouin (translator of Robert Frost and Wilfred Owen) for his kind final read-through.

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(1) Warning: some of the citations of the present article might be slightly different from the original because they are a reverse translation from French.

(2) Entretiens avec Stig Björkman, Cahiers de cinéma, 2002, p. 79.

(3) Woody Allen, Cahiers du cinéma, collection « Maîtres du cinéma », 2012

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