Directed by Woody Allen | DreamWorks | 124 minutes
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Brian Cox, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton
Is life governed by Providence or Chance? In the Book of Genesis, Joseph, the Grand Vizier of Egypt, tells his brothers, a pathetic group of starving Israelites, that “God did send me before you to preserve life,” a statement which contains the primary theme of the Bible. Providence guides history. God will bring good out of seeming evil, so that the harm done to Joseph by his brothers results in their salvation. Had they not sold him into slavery, they would not, many years later, have food to eat. Likewise, Adam’s transgression is called “the Fortunate Fall” because the sin that he committed resulted finally in the Resurrection of Jesus and the salvation of all mankind.
Many great authors have taken up this providential paradox, namely that ill fortune turns out to be a benefit. Dante, Spenser, Milton all treat it directly. My own favourite version is Fielding’s Tom Jones, the divine comedy of novels. Like Genesis, Tom Jones illustrates Providence by natural means; there’s no direct divine intervention, no vision of heaven where the earth’s difficulties and contradictions are resolved. Instead, the world, which appears to be at the whim of Fortune, chance, luck, and accident (and Fielding pretends that as author he believes this to be so), by a series of double ironies and reversals, turns out to be governed by Providence after all.
Fielding published Tom Jones in 1749. Since that time, many of the best authors have looked elsewhere for meaning and coherence. The “forces” of history may determine events and lives; human will or imagination may provide the only coherence, or, as the enemies of intelligent design would have it, life is the result of chance and mechanical processes. To this latter group belongs Woody Allen and his newest film, Match Point.
Let me say at once that I thoroughly enjoyed this film. So, I am confronted with a dilemma. Did I enjoy it because secretly to myself I hold the same nihilistic worldview as Woody Allen? Or did Woody Allen, perhaps secretly to himself, make a film that is not cynical but edifying? I confronted this dilemma once before in my review of The Man Who Wasn’t There. That film, like Match Point, employed the plot of irony, the one in which the characters remain trapped in what Northrop Frye termed a “mad world,” which is an analogy of Hell. Such stories serve moral ends by acting as warnings — There but for the grace of God go I — or as catharses that purge of us of the desires which led to the character’s downfall. The only trouble with these arguments is that they don’t quite apply to Match Point. In this film, thanks to luck, the protagonist succeeds in his crime, escapes justice, and sets out on a more than comfortable life among the English upper classes.
So what we have here, not unusual for Woody Allen, is a black comedy, a kind of theatre of the absurd. Such works also employ the plot of irony. But instead of a tyrannical blocking figure, a corrupt economic and political system, or a malicious fate keeping the characters from the “green world” of fertility and joy, his protagonist reaches that world on terms so criminal that every audience will reject them. And by this manoeuvre Allen turns the “green world,” on its head and satirises it. Allen is not a Machiavell who advocates “whatever is necessary,” but a moralist who is mocking the way of the world, the way the cookie crumbles, or in this case, the way the ball bounces. He’s never been happy with the status quo.
Yet the best argument in favour of this film arises from its art. It’s an old fashioned drama of class, adultery, and crime, not too distantly related to Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy (best done on film in the 1951 version, A Place in the Sun). Wonderfully acted — it features Scarlett Johansson, our brightest new star, as well as an accomplished British cast headed by the Irish actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Set in opulent London, it provides an uncrowded tourists’ dream of the city, of luxurious, still functioning country houses and private tennis clubs. It’s all a bit unreal, a slightly abstract vision of the social game with only two sides to the net, the insiders and the outsiders. Needless to say, Allen provides intelligent dialogue and a coherent plot, all unified by the key word and concept — “luck.” That motif plays in and out with others, all of them having to do with games, with sport, and with the arts: primarily grand opera, but also theatre, musical theatre, acting, painting, and architecture. And then these in turn relate to the human game of courtship, copulation, and the chances of fertility. This film provides so much “organic unity,” as the New Critics used to say, that one suspects it will be the one Woody Allen picture canonised in future film history courses.
In retrospect, the entire film is a game Woody Allen plays with the audience, sitting there waiting on his next serve. They both know the rules of the game, that crime should not pay, but there’s no Production Code Administration around to call “fault!” when Woody violates expectations. Yet, herein we discover the paradox of Mr Allen’s art. For no matter how much the author insists on a world governed by accident, his work only proves that behind every chance event, there’s an artful design. Where does that come from, and why do we expect it? So while Woody Allen consciously asserts one thing, his work of art — and he must know this — countermands him. He shows us what he imagines the world to be; his achievement argues that despite unfortunate results, the game still has rules.
William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of Hollywood: An Epic Production, a highly praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.