Love and Death

by Damian Cannon

Stranded in the Napoleonic wars, an abject Russian coward finds himself embroiled in a plot to assassinate Napoleon, to great comic effect. Even as a child Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen) finds himself set apart from those around him. While his relations spend their time in the typical Russian pursuits of carousing, drinking and fighting, all Boris wants to do is collect butterflies and write poetry. The only person who appears to be on his wavelength is his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), although you sometimes wonder. Secretly Boris loves Sonja, who declares that she needs a man who can fulfil her mentally, emotionally and sexually - just the sort of man Boris thinks that he is. Then she shatters his illusions by mentioning her lust for his brother Ivan (Henri Czarniak), a throwback who drags his knuckles on the floor! However, before anything can come of this web of desire, war breaks out and every able-bodied man is shunted into the army - even the patently unsuited Boris. In the heat of the moment Ivan announces that he's marrying his childhood sweetheart, prompting Sonja to hitch up with a mackerel merchant in a fit of spite.

In the army training camp, Boris's brothers quickly prove their worth while the best he can do is to not accidentally shoot himself. Just before being sent to the front line the troops have a brief furlough, time which most of the soldiers spend in the brothel. In contrast, Boris visits the opera with family and catches the flirtatious eye of Countess Alexandrovna (Olga Georges-Picot). She is recently widowed and reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the city, although the downside is her insanely jealous suitor. Luckily Boris is sent into battle before any trouble starts, where he proves himself adept at falling over, running away and breaking his sword. To escape the bloodshed Boris hides in a French cannon, which results in one of those supremely ironic twists of fate. When the weapon is fired, Boris shoots out and lands on a tent of French generals - killing them and making him a war hero in the process. Returning to Russia, Boris spends a night of passion with the Countess before being challenged to a duel by her former lover.

The problem is that Boris's opponent is an expert marksman and a renowned winner of duels. Realising that this is his last night alive, Boris visits Sonja and persuades her to marry him (she doesn't really love him but, in a great scene, she decides to do so as he's sure to die the next day). However, in yet another twist of fate, Boris manages to survive certain death and returns home to a not particularly pleased Sonja. Time passes and Sonja thaws towards Boris, even to the extent that they plan to have children (after adopting the village idiot). With abysmal timing, war breaks out again and Boris plans to leave their home (he was local fleeing champion two years in succession!). Sonja isn't willing to run though and hatches the insane, and probably suicidal, plan to kill Napoleon. Soon they're impersonating Spanish nobility and, of course, that leads to all sorts of complications.

Love and Death is an absolutely hilarious parody of "epic" Russian literature and the population-shattering war/peace events which drive such tragedies along. It would be easy to become pretentious but even when Boris and Sonja slip into deep philosophical conversations on the meaning of life you just know that Allen is playing this tongue-in-cheek (after a particularly abstruse exchange Sonja moans that all they ever talk about is sex). The script is a real gem, riddled with one-liners and set-ups for gags which pay off a little later. Allen and Keaton make a perfect comic team, he pulls marvellously sly expressions while she dead-pans the most outrageous lines, together with a supporting cast of unknowns who handle themselves pretty well. The musical score is both appropriate and excellent, with Prokofiev standing in for the usual jazz arrangements. Altogether, a fine and terrifically funny movie which is perfectly executed (literally).

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