Love and Death, released in 1975, is a Woody Allen
film that seems to incorporate his contradictory genre
tendencies within one work. While some of his films are comic and others are dour and serious, this one manages to be both at the same time.
From his childhood
on, we can see that 19-th century born Boris Grushenko
is a sad-minded child. While his brothers wrestle and horse-around, he imagines himself as Jesus
figure nailed to the cross
. A white caped-death figure, reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman
's caped death in the Seventh Seal
, talks to him and promises to fetch him one day.
While he asks the death figure whether there is afterlife, he always wonders if there are girls. Women is the second pre-occupation of this film. The object of Boris Grushenko's affection
, cousin Sonia is a contradictory figure that embodies all the clichés of the 19th century Russian novel. Sonia, portrayed by Diane Keaton
, gets stuck with a dreadful husband, Voskovek, whose passionate preoccupation with his work as a herring merchant makes Sonia smell like herring and attracts cats
to her. Allen has the habit of adding funny observations to turn what what otherwise be a drama into comedy. Voskovek
loves to sit around and talk about the herring
trade, the 150 types of herring while Sonia rolls her eye and lowers her head in frustration.
You see, what Sonia is really after is a guy whose "animal magnetism cockles my heart." That's why she takes on lovers to escape the boredom of married life with her senile husband. One of them comes to perform a musical piece with her. She plays the piano and he accompanies her on the violin
. While her husband goes upstairs to handle some business, the violin player with sharp jutting out teeth and the accent of a Count Dracula
begins to seduce Sonia with his strange central European accent and phrases like "Well, what would you say if I touched you on the shoulder, what you say if I kissed you?" (Incidentally this scene references Tolstoy's short novella the Kreuzer Sonata
Sonia is however indifferent to Boris, but he tricks her into promising him to marry her only because she thinks he is going to die in a duel
. The subplot of the movie that leads up to the duel is one of the highlights of the film. The duel takes place because Lebedevkov, the lover of a woman who Boris had a one-night stand with, wants to defend her honour by challenging Boris to a duel. Boris met Lebedevkov
's beloved Countess Alexandrovna at an opera
where he made googly eyes at her and waved a black fan playfully in front of her face after she had waved her own white fan
to attract his attention. After they slept together, Lebedevkov challenged Boris to a duel, while Boris, ever the coward, tried to refuse. The only wise thing he did was to tell Sonia that he was sure to die and got her to promise she would marry him if he were to survive.
The duel is certainly a very funny scene because Boris the coward
decides not to follow standard procedure. Both duelers are supposed to turn around from the position where they faced each other and walk into different directions to create more distance between them before they turn around once again and start shooting. Boris, however decides to walk straight behind Lebedevkev and turn around when he does. As a result, Lebedevkov ends up being confused because he does not see Boris facing him. Boris keeps himself behind his opponent at all times, by turning around exactly when he does.
The same type of comic scenes occur when Boris is reluctantly forced to join the army to defend Russia against Napoleon
's invasion. Allen makes light of Grushenko's soldierly incompetence by showing how Boris breaks his sword in a sword fight and ends up running away from the confrontation. To stab him, the French soldier doesn't have to fight him, he merely has to catch up with him. Grushenko's cowardice
is apparently grounded in ethics. He once tells Sonia that you can't kill another human being because that would be like killing yourself. According to him, all human beings are part of one absolute
being, so whatever pain a person inflicts on another also affects himself. That's why during the Duel, Grushenko trembles when he is asked to shoot Lebedevkov and shoots into the air instead. Lebedevkov shoots him twice in the arm and once the duel is over and both of them remain alive, the injured letter is inspired by Boris's pacifism
. He promises that he will now lead a good life, regain the goodness of a child, and redevote himself to singing.
That new resolve to lead a god-fearing, good life is certainly a parody
of how the way 19th century novels have made duels into life-transforming experiences in their plots.Veskov undergoes a similiar type of experience after defending his wife's honour by dueling a Turkish officer who "cast aspersions on her honour." Wounded after the duel and on his deathbed, Veskov tells Sonia that he fought to defend
her good name because he believes her to be an honorable and pure
woman. Everyone else standing around the bed breaks out in laughter because they all know that Sonia has taken many lovers. Veskov tells Sonia that he wishes he were a more attentive husband who better satisfied her needs and it is the first time in the film that he talks of something other than herring.
While Veskov's encounter with death has taught him to care about his wife, Woody Allen has Sonia herself undergo a moral transformation that sets her on the path to righteousness. But not without Boris Grushenko's comic presence. By fulfilling her promise to marry Grushenko, Sonia learns to love a man for whom she did not care at all. Grushenko meanwhile, assures her that her misgivings are unfounded, because he will teach her to satisfy his needs. The morally upright of being a dutiful wife may require personal sacrifice
, but the husband experiences none of those difficulties. As Woody Allen shows, Grushenko stretches out in bed and smiles while the despairing Sonia keeps telling him that she won't learn to love
him and she can't bear being with him. He probably knows she'll learn to put up with him after all. Surely enough, scenes of domestic bliss follow. By baking a heavy metal pot of souffle
that ends up breaking the table it's placed on and serving snowballs for dinner, Sonia learns to adore being a wife and keeping household. Of course, the moral
message of the scene can only be taken as a joke because of the gags of dining on snowballs and breaking the table with the metal pot of souffle
Of course, knowing that Grushenko was pursued by the caped knight of a death as a child is a sign that foreshadows that being married to the woman of his dreams will not get rid of his melancholy tendencies. He alarms wife Sonia by trying to hang himself and induces her to visit a wise priest. Although she irritates the old priest by stepping on his incredibly long-beard
, he does agree to reveal to her the secret of happiness in life. "Two blond twelve year-olds," he whispers. That's Woody Allen's not so subtle way to insinunate that the way for a man to stifle thoughts of suicide and death
is to make love to very young women. The truth is apparently universal. In an early scene in the movie, soldiers were shown a hygiene
play about lip sores and how they lead to blindness and madness. After that a soldier used the play as an excuse to invite Grushenko to accompany him to the brothel
In fact, in the end of the movie, there's a scene that has to say more intelligent things about the dilemma
in life. An acquiantance of Sonia's comes to ask for her advice about love troubles.. This woman has a problem because she loves Alexei, but unfortunately Alexei does not love her. He loves Alicia instead. Alicia however is having an affair with Lev and does not love Alexei. Alexei is also heartbroken because the woman that he loves doesn't want him and also because the woman that does love him is not the woman that the wants.
So is love worth it when it ends up being a disappointment? Sonia is not sure. In that final scene of the film, she says that "To love is to suffer but to avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. To love is to suffer. To not love is to suffer
. To be happy is to love
. To be happy is to suffer."
When Sonia blurts out all of that once, it comes across very funny because speaking all those words out so fast makes them seem like some kind of a weird vocal tick or a nonsense-phrase. On the other hand, if you think about them in more depth, they do make sense after all. That could be said about the movie as a whole. It's very silly and comic, but the things that come across as just nonsensical and funny could seem meaningful and serious upon closer reflection.