Woody Allen and Diane Keaton teamed up again for this follow up to 1973’s Sleeper, respectively starring as Russian peasants Boris and Sonja, set during the Napoleonic Era. While ostensibly another absurdist comedy from Allen, this film’s blending of references to philosophy, Russian literature and European cinema are indicative of Allen’s continued development as a filmmaker at this point in his career, and foreshadow the more serious-minded projects that were to come in future years.
Allen’s character is, naturally, a neurotic pacifist who is compelled to join the Russian army as Napoleon’s forces invade the country. To compound Boris’s troubles, he also finds out that his cousin Sonja (Keaton), whom he is in love with, is engaged to be married to someone else. This sets in motion a series of bizarre events leading to Boris and Sonja eventually marrying each other and attempting to assassinate Napoleon. Whilst Love and Death draws upon a range of cerebral and high art sources for its humor, this is no way hinders the film’s comedic effectiveness. It is easily one of Allen’s most genuinely laugh out loud efforts, and he clearly enjoyed playing around with the film’s historical setting by incorporating a number of anachronistic elements throughout (a case in point is Boris buying a hot dog from a New York vendor during a battle).
Love and Death was shot on location in Hungary and France, and its troubled production history, including difficulties communicating with a multilingual cast and crew, meant that Allen did not shoot a film outside the United States until the late 1990s. The film was a critical and commercial success, it was the 15th highest grossing film at the American box office in 1975, and was awarded the Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution at the Berlin International Film Festival in the same year.
More than any other film at this stage of Allen’s career, his love for the legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman is most apparent. From the lengthy philosophical debates between Boris and Sonja, to a personification of Death not dissimilar to that seen in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, there are numerous allusions to the director’s work, and this would continue to be a notable feature of the films that Allen made for the remainder of the 1970s and much of the 80s.
Love and Death effectively marks the end of Woody Allen’s screwball comedy phase, and almost no one at the time would have predicted that his next few projects would include the poignant Annie Hall, followed by the bleak drama Interiors. It still holds up as one of the funniest films in his vast filmography, though it may lack the emotional depth of later efforts, if you have yet to see it dear reader, is certainly worth your time and effort to do so.
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