A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

Based on Ingmar Bergman's 1955 "Smiles of a Summer Night", which also inspired Steven Sondheim's musical "A Little Night Music" and it's subsequent film version, Woody Allen's "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" also riffs of off Shakespeare, classic paintings, and the earliest incarnations of filmmaking among other inspirations. His characters, like those played by Jose Ferrer and Tony Roberts, not only seem like Bergman characters, they also resemble the actors who played in his films. Woody's character is also a combination of characters from other pieces, Bottom from Shakespeare among others. The natural, colorful images we see on screen draw on Monet while Mia Farrow's character looks like she may have fallen out of a painting by Rossetti. Meanwhile, evoking the time frame of the setting, Woody often seems inspired by the early pioneers of filmmaking even though the film is in color. Despite all of this the film is pure Woody. Unlike others, who cannot pay homage well, Woody draws on other's work and yet fuses them into his own personalized films. Woody pays homage without ever seeming to steal. This is one of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker.

Woody's bright, sweet and airy film is a treatise on life and love. Only Woody could spark a commentary on sexual mores and relationship struggles in 1982 by placing 6 interesting, intelligent and delightful characters in a turn of the century setting. This film is so agreeable and so breezy that one finds it hard to believe there is so much meaning stuffed into it's charming plot and dialogue. Woody tempts us by using colorful, vibrant visuals and green, open settings as his backdrops for the characters to discuss the nature of life, love, sex and relationships. His major theme seems to be this: If all that truly exists is physical and tactile then does love truly exist? His answer to his own query is a resounding yes. It's no accident that the film opens with Jose Ferrer's character saying, "Ghosts, spirits, sprites", in a narrative that seeks to deny the existence of such aberrations while the film ends with Ferrer transforming into exactly that, a ghost, a spirit, a sprite.

The 6 characters in the film are coupled-up as they meet at Woody's seeming summer house for a weekend getaway. Woody is married to Mary Steenburgen. He spends many an idle moment tinkering with his inventions, like his flying machines, in lieu of lovemaking with his wife. She has, of late, become quite frigid and this has Woody's character even more neurotic than usual. Here, however, Woody's tension is (amazingly) much more relaxed, humorous, and inviting than in most of his films. Woody's neurosis here is much more accessible to us because we can easily understand the tensions of a sexless marriage. We understand it even further when it is the sweet, charming and yet matronly Steenburgen he is being denied. Meanwhile, the first guests to arrive at the estate are Roberts and Julie Hagerty. Roberts, as we have seen in a previous sequence, is a doctor who fancies himself quite a ladies man and rightly so. When his current lover, a married socialite, refuses to go away with him for the weekend, Roberts invites his nurse, Hagerty, a so-called modern women along instead. She agrees quite easily and even balks at the idea of separate bedrooms. But, as the weekend evolves, Roberts and Hagerty end up spending almost no time together. They each wander off to enjoy the company of the opposite sex in the coupling of Ferrer and Farrow instead, with Farrow making her first appearance in an Allen film here. Farrow's coy female is much younger than Ferrer but she is about to marry him because she feels time running out and she desires a secure, intelligent man for a husband. But Farrow has a history with Woody, which is alluded to at her introduction and finally discussed as the film goes on, and finds a suitor in Roberts, who finds her charming. Ferrer, meanwhile, enjoys the strength and charm of Hagerty's free- spirit and seeks "one last fling" with her.

Herein lies the plot's crux. The interrelationships of all the characters as they interact with their suitors and their counterparts is quite interesting. And while much happens which we expect, such as Farrow and Woody coupling up and Steenburgen seeking out amorous advice from Hagerty (who is a nurse that "knows how all the organs work" and a suffragette too, remember), Woody's script also allows for many surprises. Who ends up with who and why is quite interesting. The source of Steenburgen's frigidity is also revealed. These are all twists and turns that surprise and delight us.

It is no surprise that, as is his wont, Woody spends as much time concentrating on the women in the film as he does the men, however. The director is one of a handful who seems quite able to incorporate a female perspective into many of his works. Even more to the point, he allows male and female points of view to coexist in many of his films. Here Steenburgen, Farrow and Hagerty play three distinct women yet none is stereotypical or weak. Steenburgen may be the least realized of the female characters, with her sexual frigidity and inability to cope a problem and yet the demure actress makes the most of these traits. She is shy about having her problem discussed with others, having balked at the idea of asking Roberts, a doctor, about them, and yet she finds the strength to ask Hagerty for help herself. She is the most typical depiction of womanhood in the piece. Her seeming opposite is Hagerty who, as her social inferior and a feminist, is the embodiment of a new womanhood. Her femininity seems her strength. It is no surprise to us that she is the most strong of all the characters because she hasn't allowed anyone or anything to hold back her curiosity or emotions. In the middle is Farrow who is seeking to get married (and be more like Steenburgen) and yet comes from an existence that, we come to find, parallels Hagerty quite a bit. A sexual free-spirit herself, Farrow is trying to find her place in the changing shape of womanhood circa 1900.

The discussions about spirituality and physicality might seem a sub-textural element if it didn't so relate so closely to the real subject matter here: sex and romance. To aid in these discussions, Woody juxtaposes Ferrer's adamant denial of all that is spiritual, although he doesn't go so far as to deny the existence of God, with Woody's character's interest in that arena. One of his inventions is a "spirit ball" which, he hopes, will allow us contact with the "other" world. Of course, Woody's neurotic character doubts it will work while his storytelling counterpart (the director) shows us that, indeed, it will.

Woody's film is always beautiful to watch. He uses music by Felix Mendelssohn throughout the film, often to highlight scenes of babbling brooks and animals in motion. The characters spend most of their time outdoors, they even eat outdoors, so that this backdrop of nature is constantly visible. We can practically smell the fresh air, it is so vivid. To further remind us of this tension, between the natural sexuality of the human animal and the more closed and prudent mores of the time, Woody films a wonderful scene where Roberts tries to tempt Farrow into meeting him for a romantic rendezvous. Farrow is seated on a couch inside the house, listening to her betrothed sing a hymn, while Roberts whispers in her ear through a window while he perched outside on a hanging swing. The effect is undeniable as Roberts coaxes Farrow "out" of her supposed shell.

"A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" isn't hilariously funny but it has many moments of mild amusement. As always, Woody makes a discussion of weighty topics seem fresh, funny, and accessible. This may be his most unassuming work ever. Like sexuality itself, it's hard to deny the film's magical charm as a delightful diversion.

Note: Director of Photography is Gordon Willis. Costumes by Santo Loquasto.

Much of the Mendelssohn music is either from Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra or Leonard Berstein and the New York Philharmonic. Mendelssohn music was also used in Max Reinhardt's version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in 1935.

Filmed in New York state.

Woody's flying machines and inventions are by Eoin Sproit Studios Ltd.

The Nepotism Factor: The Executive producer of the film is Woody's frequent collaborator Charles Joffe. Set Decorator is Carol Joffe.

Not only was this Woody's first film with his future wife, it was also his first comedy in 5 years ("Annie Hall" in 77 was followed by "Stardust Memories", "Manhattan", and "Interiors". This was also the first picture the director made for Orion Films.

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