MATCH POINT (Woody Allen, 2005)

The alleged decline in Woody Allen’s work allegedly helped occasion the stunning praise that his latest film, Match Point, garnered at Cannes in 2005; but, in truth, Allen’s prolific body of work has long been unpredictable as to quality, including in any given period films both good and bad. Pick your Woody-movie. While I delight in Sleeper (1973), Manhattan (1979), Radio Days (1987), Shadows and Fog (1991), Everyone Says I Love You (1996) and Celebrity (1998), I have little or no use for Love and Death (1975), Annie Hall (1977), Stardust Memories (1980), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999). Better than the films in this last group are the mixed-result Woodies: What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Alice (1990), Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Hollywood Ending (2002). Allen’s films have often been stronger in script than in visual facility, and until Match Point his one great work was the astounding Zelig (1983), which I have described as “a humanistic piece of such wit and dazzling invention that it accumulates into a metaphor for creative possibilities.” Starting in the 1920s, its egoless protagonist, Zelig, pops up seemingly everywhere—at a ticker-tape parade of heroes, at a Scott Fitzgerald party, at a Nuremberg Hitler rally, etc.—and appears to take on the aspect of whomever or whatever group he happens to be with. Reflecting the uncertain sense of self at America’s core, this “chameleon man” becomes a freak celebrity and a subject for medical study; when, in fact, nothing really can be learned from him because he can scarcely be said to exist. Here, in gorgeous black and white (Gordon Willis cinematographed), Allen achieved the high satirical order of Mark Twain’s literary masterpieces. Zelig isn’t a perfect film (Mia Farrow’s limitations required that the later years of her pivotal character be played by another actress, and this splits the film into two pieces), but it is riotously funny, genuinely—not in a mannered way—bleak, and probing, both of human nature and of the American disposition. Zelig has now nearly met its match. (Or has, with no nearly required?) Match Point is the best directed of all Woody Allen pictures. If Zelig was after the author of Pudd’nhead Wilson, Match Point has set its sights on Dostoievski. It serves; it wins.

It’s all about luck. Allen had meant for his thirty-sixth movie to be filmed in the Hamptons; but when a British company came through with additional, necessary funds, he moved the script’s locale to London. Match Point’s witty, highly suspenseful exploration of class meldings and collisions thus found a perfect home. The Thames River, over which the fate of the protagonist both figuratively and literally hangs, becomes a principal player in the film. The “charter’d Thames” of Blake’s poem “London,” it is heavy with a sense of fate and of stiff embankment—and, one must add, of pollution. (One recalls here Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 Frenzy.) This pollution is correlative to the muddied moral waters swimming around in the mind of the film’s protagonist, Chris Wilton, brilliantly played by that most unlikeable of young actors, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Here, Rhys-Meyers (who for some reason has dropped the hyphen) is so purposefully unlikeable I ended up liking him. (A lot!) Thanks to Rhys-Meyers, his Irish charm and, one supposes, Allen’s directorial guidance, I got caught up in all Wilton’s mental turbulence and egotistical shenanigans, which include two cold-blooded murders with a shotgun, one of them at nearly point-blank range. All of a sudden, after a long stretch of carping, I find myself a fan of the actor. In this film, he is a rock at showing his character’s fear and crumbling—like a male Joan Fontaine. (Think Ivy, Sam Wood, 1947.) He is also marvelously, bottomlessly ambiguous as he shows Wilton overcompensating for his near inability to reach a decision, make a choice. Rhys-Meyers gives one of the great portrayals of moral weakness.

Unlucky Chris! He was born poor, and his adeptness at tennis on the professional circuit has become his means for entering another world, giving him a taste of la dolce vita. The extent of his talent for tennis has imposed a limit, so now he is selling lessons to the rich at an exclusive club and in this way is keeping his hand in the till. In this capacity he befriends rich boy Tom Hewett, and dates and weds Tom’s sister, Chloe—and has an affair with Tom’s fiancée, Nola, an actress. She is a struggling young American actress—as much of an outsider to the upper class and to Tom’s family as Chris, but more easily identifiable as someone on the make. In one of Allen’s most intriguing moments (what an eye this artist has!), Chris compliments Nola on her sensual—i.e., hungry—lips as the camera shows that Nola’s lips are the very image of Chris’s. Given the amoral way that young people today navigate and negotiate reality, we never do find out to what extent either Chris or Nola manipulates others to pursue his or her gain. These are decent folk, after a fashion, after all. They half-manipulate. Rather, it is clearer that Tom is slumming in his “affection” for Nola, whom he eventually dumps under duress from Mum’s disapproval, marrying instead someone of the same class. Of course, his befriending Chris, which the family accepts, is part and parcel of the same liberal impulse as his initial gravitation towards Nola. (Tellingly, the veddy English Tom addresses Chris as “Irish.”) But like Mums everywhere, Tom’s is less possessive about her sweet, modest daughter than about her handsome (and truly disgusting) boy. Not all emotions are governed by class. One must add that Nola is as beautiful as the actress who plays Nola, Scarlett Johansson. (Johansson is terrific.) In a perpetual alcoholic fog, Eleanor, Tom’s mother, very likely misses the incestuous implications of her own obsession with Tom, and these suppressed feelings of hers—because Eleanor wants Tom to marry a cousin, Nola remarks how “inbred” the family is—may have helped drive her into the bottle in the first place. Here is a person who would never think of applying a shotgun blast to anyone. Eleanor lacks the resourcefulness, the flair for self-help, upon which a boy like Chris, unluckily born, must rely in order to have a shot at the good life. Her “decency” exacts the price of moral blindness. Thus she fails to recognize the threat that Chris poses—and the threat that she herself in a way poses by her being relatively unconcerned with her daughter’s fate. Perhaps she doesn’t know better; perhaps her own parents once upon a time fixated on a brother of hers at her expense. We tend to repeat our parents even as we claim moral or behavioral superiority over them. Indeed, those who do behave better than their parents tend to be those who, while critical, embrace them or their memory without issuing condemnation.

Where class is concerned, one is either lucky or not. One doesn’t choose how high or low one’s birth is. It’s purely a matter of luck. The other instances of fortune in Allen’s film refer to class stratification or to what one can do to eliminate the handicap of lowly origins such as Chris exemplifies. For all his ambitions, Chris is drawn beyond his measure to resist to Nola, who is as lowly as he. (In bed, Chris is restrained and tender with Chloe; with Nola, full-bodied, flamboyant.) When she becomes pregnant with his child, jeopardizing his marriage to Chloe and the lifestyle and work opportunity that are attached to it (Chris has a responsible position in his father-in-law’s company), Nola must be gotten rid of. Obtusely, some have suggested as a result that Match Point is amoral. Instead, it is mesmerizing, crisp, emotionally rich, occasionally hilarious, and always highly satirical. It is a film about such ingenuity as compensates for one’s “bad luck”—Chris ends up committing a first murder in anticipation of covering up his second murder; in effect, Chris makes his own luck, as unlucky people are always counseled to do, condescendingly, by those who lack the capacity to confront the reality of how our basic circumstances largely reside out of our control, for better or worse. Match Point is also a study in guilt—about the cost to his conscience of all that Chris feels forced to do. (Chris is confronted by very material forms of the two persons he dispatched.) The writer-director of Zelig is still on the side of the angels.

The hybrid genre to which the film belongs is perhaps upsetting to some. Like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), not to mention Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Allen’s own Shadows and Fog (a symbolical evocation of the Holocaust as characters simply disappear in shadows and fog), Match Point marries film noir and, under the circumstances, unexpected humor. A brash joke (to which Rhys-Meyers’ performance is attuned) radiates alarmingly, distressingly, wittily from the center of this comedy: that Chris must commit murders in order to save his marriage. As the joke plays out in the film, one is forced to question certain assumptions about the institution of marriage. For one, given the motives behind both Tom’s and Chris’s marriages, marriage is presented as a kind of abstraction rather than as a human union, in one case reinforcing other institutions such as class, and in the other contesting these. Moreover, Chris and Chloe’s “union” contests something else: the myth that two persons in some sense become one. The film leaves Chris and Chloe each in their own world even as they’re “together” as a couple while entertaining others. Because Chris has committed murders to retain his marriage, and because Chloe is ignorant of this fact (compare the couple in Victor Sjöström’s 1927 The Wind, who are bound together by the shared knowledge that Letty has killed the man who attacked her), they are forever apart; the need to stay married to Chloe has taken over Chris’s being married to her, and as she is being sociable with guests (her family) Chris withdraws into his own haunted head. In a sense, Chloe is married to her ignorance, Chris, to his guilt, and their “marriage” primarily exists to paper over their recurrent—I would not say perpetual—separateness. Marriage, then, may institutionalize whatever a couple already essentially are while, at least in certain instances, failing to lead the couple into greater unity, except perhaps in the eyes of others. I am reminded here of an even greater film about marriage than Allen’s—and a bleaker one: Claude Chabrol’s La femme infidèle (1968).

Match Point opens with a bravura flourish, establishing a complex tone that admits equal measures of mockery and flat-out seriousness; it introduces the exquisite, gracious poise of Allen’s film. (Well, with its air of anticipation, we may say that the film’s title is first to introduce this.) A tennis net runs in angled depth through the shot. We hear Chris’s voiceover: “The man who said ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward and you win—or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.” Until these last two sentences we see a ball going back and forth, in slow motion, over the net. With the last two sentences we actually see the ball strike the top of the net and, in a freeze frame, stay suspended in air over the net. Allen never releases the freeze frame, dissolving instead to the narrative proper, in which Chris begins his job as a tennis instructor at a posh club. The poor lad’s whole life is one of suspense, his future without the guarantees that pupil Tom enjoys. Moreover, the suspended ball, not going down on one side or the other, symbolizes Chris’s moral state, (like ours) neither bad nor good, but capable of doing bad and suffering in guilt, afterwards, mightily for it. Later, the scene at the net is evoked when Chris tosses a ring he has stolen to cover up a murder, expecting it to be washed away in the Thames, and, instead, unbeknownst to him, it hits the top of the guard rail and falls down landside. Does this mean Chris will be caught? Or, unpunished, will he be haunted (intermittently, at least) by guilt? It has to be one or the other, except that Allen devises a resolution that cuts in half the difference between the two alternatives—the narrative translation of the opening freeze frame. What brilliant filmmaking!

One of the film’s themes is compensation: in his case, the ends to which Chris feels driven to offset the unluckiness of his humble origins. Allen finds a similar impulse motivating all kinds of behavior, including Tom’s attraction to Nola and Nola’s attraction to Tom. However, the sharpest, most slicing appearance of this motive again attaches itself to Chris or, more particularly, his unseen father, a Christian fanatic, about whom he contemptuously explains, “After he lost both his legs, he found Jesus.” Chris’s emotional life is therefore contextualized by family history as well as by class and social strata. He is fleeing from a father whose strictures and discipline threaten to trap him in a moral straightjacket, much as the history of poverty that his father also embodies for him threatens to trap Chris in a social straightjacket.

Chris loves opera—or claims to. We are never quite certain what is real about Chris and what is affected as he pursues, or half-pursues, better luck than he is used to. (We catch him reading Crime and Punishment perhaps only to impress Chloe’s father in conversation.) Of course, if he does love opera, we have here another of his “compensations.” In any case, the soundtrack is graced by five old recordings of Enrico Caruso, including one of Caruso singing, hauntingly, forlornly, “Mai Reggendo All’Aspro Assalto” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Such music is correlative to the boy’s soul; Chris tells Chloe that he loves opera because it expresses “everything that is tragic about life.” But Caruso imaginatively participates in the film in another way. We think of Caruso as the greatest tenor of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the one who set the modern standard. But Caruso was not always so adulated. Early on, he was an object of critical derision because, despite his passion for singing, his wee, reedy voice would routinely crack on high notes. It is Guglielmo Vergine whose rigorous training transformed his most famous pupil, creating the magnificent singer whose voice we cherish. What luck for Caruso, since Vergine accepted in lieu of payment a quarter of Caruso’s earnings for—this was the contractual wording—“five years of actual singing.” What bad luck for Caruso, though, who interpreted this as meaning that his obligation to Vergine would end after five years. Vergine had a different meaning in mind: a quarter of all of Caruso’s earnings, aria by aria, until “five years of actual singing” had been exhausted, that is to say, five times 364 days times 24 hours of “actual singing.” Bad luck, then, turned to good luck, which turned to bad luck again—which turned again to good luck for Caruso when he sued Vergine to extricate himself from the contract and the courts ruled in his favor. All this provides a lovely metaphor for much of what Chris goes through mentally and emotionally throughout the film.

There is another striking detail that assumes the dimensions of a metaphor for Chris’s lot in life. One of his past jobs, he reveals, was to clean his employer’s expensive sports car, an Aston Martin, with a toothbrush—a task suggesting the sexual humiliation that attaches itself to poverty and social inferiority.

Allen’s Match Point variously recalls Crime and Punishment, Macbeth, Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley books, Alfred Hitchcock (for instance, his 1951 Strangers on a Train—and Highsmith again), Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), and Allen’s own films, especially Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen orchestrates these and other echoes handily and thrillingly. A packed work, Match Point nonetheless proceeds without any signs of strain. The degree to which it implicates us in Chris Wilton’s anxious predicament before, during and after his double murder: this may be Allen’s highest accomplishment. Allen has made many worthwhile films, but among them only his Match Point reaches the viewer’s soul and shakes it up.

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