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A Grim New Woody Allen Film Debuts at Cannes

After the earnest entreaties of Emmanuelle Bercot’s “Standing Tall,” the French social drama about at-risk youth that opened the festival, and the dystopian provocations of Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster,” the mood at Cannes changed palpably when Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man” unspooled out-of-competition, injecting some adrenalin and existential angst (not to mention star power) into a festival that had gotten off to a slow start.

Ten of Allen’s previous 45 feature films have premiered at Cannes, starting with “Manhattan” in 1979. None have been in competition, since Allen doesn’t like the idea of movies vying for awards (he famously boycotts the Oscars year after year). This was also the 79-year-old director’s first visit to the Croisette since 2011’s smash hit “Midnight in Paris.”

After last year’s slight hocus-pocus comedy “Magic in the Moonlight,” “Irrational Man” finds Woody Allen back to his more serious themes and obsessions. For once, however, his views are not espoused by Allen himself or a thinly disguised surrogate (past examples include Larry David, Jason Biggs and Kenneth Branagh). Rather, we get a magisterially grouchy – not to mention paunchy – Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas, a professor of existential philosophy at a fictional liberal arts college called Braylin in New England (much of the film was actually shot at Newport’s Salve Regina University).

In the pantheon of Woody Allen grouches, Abe Lucas stands out for his bitterness and pessimism. Here’s a guy who tells his undergrads that doing philosophy is an epic waste of time and that Sartre’s key insight was that “hell is other people”; a guy who plays Russian roulette when invited to a student’s party and would gladly throw Immanuel Kant away because the categorical imperative is too rigid to apply to extreme situations (the example he gives his students is that, according to Kant, you would need to tell the Nazis that Anne Frank was hiding in the attic to avoid telling a lie). In other words, Abe has hit rock bottom. He can’t even take pleasure in his research, telling his star pupil Jill (a radiant Emma Stone, who was the best thing about “Moonlight”) “the world doesn’t need another book about Martin Heidegger and fascism.” But like the existentialists tell us, you can’t truly grasp what existence is until you’ve sunken as low as you can get.

Like Meursault, the anti-hero of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger, “Abe decides to commit a radical act: murder. Unlike Camus’ outsider, however, Abe chooses his victim with care. He’s a corrupt judge without whom, reasons Abe, the world would be a better place. He steals a chemistry lab key from Rita (a sardonic Parker Posey), a lonely professor he is sleeping with, to procure cyanide. Allen leaves open the question of whether this act is ethically justifiable or morally right. Unlike the murders in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” or “Match Point,” Abe’s act is “irrational,” and not tied bound concretely to any sense of self-defense or self-preservation. As the film enters its final act, things take a particularly dark turn. The film doesn’t play as straight comedy or drama, but the ending might be the grimmest that Allen has ever shot.

This is the fifth Woody Allen film shot by the great cinematographer Darius Khonji, whose frames the scenes with clean, uncluttered shots and elegant camera movements, which effectively establish Abe’s solitude and bitterness as well as Allen’s idyllic – and rather goyish, in a pristine tweed-and-Frappuccino New England way – vision of the ivory tower. Superb and immersive acting from Phoenix, Stone and Posey are more compelling than the uneven, second-hand Woody Allen dialogue (I nearly threw my shoe at the screen when Abe called philosophy “verbal masturbation”) and it is ultimately the performances that make this one of Allen’s better films of the past decade or so.

“Irrational Man” is also the title of an influential Existentialism primer by William Barrett. And the classroom dialogue has its share of namedropping (Kierkegaard, Husserl, the above-mentioned Sartre). Perhaps the scene where Jill discovers Abe’s copy of “Crime and Punishment” with “Hannah Arendt, the Banality of Evil” written in the margins is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but it seems more calculated to illicit a smug recognition from New Yorker subscribers.

Famously publicity shy, Allen nevertheless graced the red carpet flanked by Stone and Posey, to the delight of fans and paparazzi alike. And for a director who shuns the press like the plague and gives few interviews, Allen was remarkably engaging and funny at the film’s press conference. He sounded off about the futility and meaninglessness of existence and his own modest ways for coping. “The bottom line is that life has its own agenda, and it runs right over you. We’re all going to end up in a very bad position sooner or later. The same position, but a bad one — and the only way out of it, the only thing you can do as an artist, is to explain to people how life is worth living and has a meaning.”

Although sitting behind a table fielding questions from pushy journalists, he might as well have been pacing onstage with a mike in his hand, squinting through smoky light at a nightclub audience. Asked whether he’d even thought of committing murder himself, he cracked a wry smile: “Even as you speak,” he said, giving the journalist a slightly crazed look. He called filmmaking “a nice thing to keep you busy:” “It’s like they give the inmates in an institution basket weaving or something. It keeps you occupied.”

But he disputed the idea that his films have actually given him the meaning that he finds life lacking. Listening to him, it was hard not to feel that underneath the shtick – the jokes and stutters – Allen was being perfectly sincere.

“I had always wanted to be a serious filmmaker,” he told the journalists. “My idol was always Ingmar Bergman. I had to be a comic filmmaker because that’s where my gifts were and no one would give me any money to make a serious film. They wanted me to be funny.”

Implying that he is never truly satisfied with any of his films, he offered an explanation for why he never re-watches a film after he’s made it. “You can always see what you did wrong and why it’s terrible. I would shoot them all again if I could. I could improve them all.”

Added to this litany of regrets was that he has never found a belief system – neither religion nor philosophy nor the art of Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Beethoven (three titans he mentioned) – that could bring meaning to his life. But he spoke about how such belief and hope was essential to go on living. He unexpectedly cited Primo Levi, who observed that the communist prisoners in Auschwitz drew strength to survive from their unwavering belief in creating the idea society. “They were able to better cope with the stresses because they had this economic system that they all believed in fantastically. One that eventually fell apart and did not work. But that did not matter…It does make your life better if there is something to believe in.”

With this “something to believe in” entirely lacking from his life, however, the best he said he could do is continue to make and enjoy films. “Watching a Fred Astaire movie for an hour and a half is a way of not thinking about my death, my decaying body and that I will be old…” He pauses for effect. “One day in the very distant future.”

A.J. Goldmann is a freelance writer based in Berlin.

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