I think Woody Allen has been playing a joke on us all these years and in his new film Match Point he finally cops to it. No doubt it’s his most baldly revealing picture, a reprehensible and misogynist pseudo-thriller that is also aesthetically polished and compulsively watchable. It’s a confession of sorts, one where all the anti-humanist cruelty he’s hidden throughout his previous work comes to the fore, though it’s telling that his admission lands with all the force of that down-feather pillow flung at Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun. Nonetheless, there is some still-active residue lining the shattered remnants of my Catholicism that forces me, despite our differing religious backgrounds, to acknowledge Allen’s effort. Match Point is certainly a more honest film than that pathetic paean to homo-repression Brokeback Mountain, not least because Allen understands the erotic potentials of his young leads.
In Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (they of the gender complementary bee-stung pillow lips) Allen finds ideal representations of youthful beauty that he then proceeds to sully and destroy. Yet before Match Point takes a plunging midpoint turn into oblivion there is an observational splendor to how Allen and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin photograph the duo, a luxuriant co-mingling of perspectives both straight and queer, both sexual and spiritual, appropriate considering Adefarasin’s superb work with gay director Terence Davies on The House of Mirth. Indeed, the first half of Match Point feels like a cinematographer’s movie: all mood and presentation, burnished with golden, womb-like shadows, punctuated by diagetic snippets of opera and subtle, sonic reverberations from a newfound London cityscape.
Yet as time goes on, Allen’s images exude a palpable sense of something being nurtured for an unholy birth, an unfortunate indicator warning of that encroaching interloper “narrative.” Indeed, when story intrudes in one of Allen’s movies it’s almost always for the worst (we should perhaps be thankful that the rumored three-hour murder mystery cut of Annie Hall is forever lost to time) and Match Point is no exception to this tendency. It’s not enough that former Irish tennis pro Chris Wilton (Rhys-Meyers), now married into and working for a family of upper-class Brits, is having an affair with struggling American actress Nola Rice (Johansson)—in Allen’s world there is no chance for the couple’s ecstasy to be explored beyond its attractively silky surface. So he grafts an eleventh-hour murder plot onto Match Point, a narrative twist anchored by the fallacious assumption that every woman on Earth is either an alluring cocktease or a needy shrew. Predictably, the resulting, rather unbelievable turns of character have the wags at several major movie magazines making like ambulance-chasing academics on 9/11.
“Woody Allen’s best film in decades!” trumpets one such critic manqué, an almost exact paraphrase from a rave-strewn bus advertisement I recently spotted for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Woman in White, which acts, incidentally, as a primary Match Point character’s alibi when the story turns to slaughter. The push and pull between high and low culture is a thematic constant for Allen (I’d love to one day see him perform the lead role in Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner), yet his films most often end with an acknowledgement of everlasting kinship with the bourgeois peanut gallery. Match Point amends this inclination; through the character of Chris Wilton, Allen admits he is a trespasser in this realm, a mock-nouveau riche gatecrasher prepared to maintain his privileged position by any means necessary. Even the climactic appearance of a few Bergman-like ghosts of conscience does little to mute Chris’s, hence Allen’s, confident and defiant sense of entitlement.
The director’s confession is deepened by Rhys-Meyers’s stellar performance (the first time, in recent memory, that the lead actor in an Allen film isn’t doing a hands-gyrating Woody impersonation), yet it’s amazing how, despite all the conceptually off-putting honesty on display, it still feels like there’s very little here of consequence. Allen’s misogynist predilections don’t have the down-and-dirty complexity of an artist like Peckinpah, and his pessimistic worldview lacks the transcendent density of a film like Straw Dogs, where the violence perpetrated is shown in all its physical and psychological ugliness, in essence cleansing the viewer through a grippingly forced brute-intellectual defilement. In Match Point, Allen films violence the way he films most things: distanced, sober, and jokey, always on the outside looking in as if gazing at amoebas on a microscope slide. The film’s pivotal murder scene thus plays at about the same level of intensity as those moments where Chris goes shopping at Ralph Lauren; lacking any differing sense of perspective, these sequences come across as poseur visualizations of moral decay, which Allen then exploits to get across his misanthropic “the world is shit” moral. Match Point‘s final image, in which Chris gazes solemnly out of the gilded cage of his own making, thuddingly expresses this point, yet it is also an invitation to consider and reflect back on the mysteries of Allen’s prolific cinematic career, an exercise unfortunately akin to an archaeologist pursuing the history of a lost culture by excavating a child’s sandbox.