In a packed theatre in Southern California, I wondered how many people actually knew that this was not going to be the “typical” Woody Allen film. Gone was the voice of a neurotic character in his fumbling quest for romance. And, for the most part, gone was the comedy in general. In much the same way that New York is a character in Allen’s films, Verdi selections complement the story’s cinematic arc, cementing an undercurrent of gravity and things to come.
I was very aware of all of the above before seeing the film, which is part of the reason I rushed out to see it, rather than “waiting for cable.” The demographics for this particular matinee showing were a mix of often long-forgotten mostly middle aged men and women, rather than the young men and teens that Hollywood unabashedly chases after. (Note to Hollywood: We’re here, we’re not queer, but we’re still alive, recognize great filmmaking and should matter).
In the traditional filmic noir world, what happens when working-class outsiders invade a world of privilege? Greed, lust and murder. Like Mike Nichols’ Closer, Allen deftly handles the favorite subject of so many filmmakers, infidelity, with the quiet elegance of truth. The heartbreak of Emily Mortimer’s Chloe Hewett as she obsesses over becoming pregnant is depicted without the usual pretense of the innocent wife. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Chris Wilton is a complex, pathological sycophant, who outwardly makes no apologies for his desires, slightly reminiscent of the real-life Scott Peterson, with at times, the cold steeliness of a Ted Bundy. Scarlet Johansson is compelling as struggling actress Nola Rice with her self-aware, yet emotionally frail blend of earthy allure.
Even more disturbing than Chris’ treatment of his wife, Chole, is his indifference to Nola, after he recklessly pursues, uses and abuses her. Interestingly, most of the write-ups on this film seem to, on a basic level, justify that treatment since she is a knowing and unabashed adulterous seductress. However, Nola (and perhaps it is construed as the power of seduction), appears much more vulnerable than femme fatalistic. The fact that she is pursued relentlessly by Chris seems to be overlooked, almost sanctioned, in much the same way that society seems to continue to insist that categorically “sexy” women deserve what they get for luring men (and ultimately being what they desire). It’s like blaming fast food for making you fat. No one ever said you have to eat it, and if you really care about your body, you won’t. But animal lust is more difficult (if not impossible for some) to give up than fast food.
This is not merely a class-conscious tale of passion and ambition that attempts to rationalize ruthlessness, but rather, a brilliant display of how greed and lust motivates and how much “luck” has to do with life, allowing transgression to prevail (at least on the surface).
Susan S. Davis