There’s not too much to be said for the director that hasn’t been proffered before, but in Love and Death Allen appears to be shedding some of his more juvenile shtick for the dense philosophical examinations of self and relationships that would come to make him an American master in the years following this 1975 film.
Based on a variety of Russian masterworks – everything from literature to the country’s early film stuff – Allen creates a narrative that allows for his own personal cowardice even as it’s run through the gambit of 19th century history.
The entire film is set in the past and constitutes one of the few of the director’s mid period pieces to take this approach. Of course, the film that preceded this, Sleeper, was set in some sort of futuristic society, but subsequent to the work here Allen wouldn’t rely on such ostentatious use of costuming for some time.
Beginning with a child philosophizing and encountering the physical embodiment of death, there’s an obvious reference to the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, which Allen uses in any number of his works. Borrowing from The Seventh Seal broadly, and specifically during the movie’s closing scenes and how the camera frames the faces of various characters, Allen is able to adeptly include all of his artistic affinities.
Of course, the standard love story is present. The relationship between Allen’s character, Boris, and that of Diane Keaton’s, Sonja, is complicated by a vast many things. Firstly, the two are cousins. And while that might be problematic to a modern viewer, it probably wasn’t back in the day.
Boris, though, can’t make Sonja his own because of her affection for his older, more rugged brother. That relationship doesn’t pan out and results in Sonja marrying a fish monger to save face. The result is that Allen, who is whisked away by war, eventually enters into a relationship with some haughty, married woman.
Because of the various physical scenes in Love and Death, Allen employs more than a nod to the Marx Brothers comedy. As he moves around a man that he’s supposed to be dueling, his semi-crouched personage should readily recall any of the three brothers attempting to make a fast getaway.
Love and Death isn’t generally mentioned in the first breath when discussing Allen’s greatest works. And perhaps that’s warranted. The pacing is slow at times and the assassination attempt can’t come fast enough. But for the most part, the film is a relatively amusing feature. There are ample references to what initially made Allen a star and more than a few ideas that point to what would happen during the period of his career that would shortly follow.
Moving from Russian to a focus on New York and storytelling using the city as a character was an auspicious one – and one the Allen may have sussed out here.