Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (0-5): 4
Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
Woody Allen revisits spiritual issues he explored in Crimes & Misdemeanors in this his 44th film. The scene has shifted from the late 1980s Manhattan to the late 1920s Provence, France, but Allen’s concern with the possibility of the existence of a spiritual world, and thus of God, is raised again—something he has not done for quite a while in the more frothy comedies of recent years.
It is 1928 and Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) a stage magician elaborately made up with slanted eyes and a Fu Manchu mustache and richly costumed as Wei Ling Soo, wows a large audience again in Berlin with such tricks as a disappearing elephant, sawing a comely assistant in half, and transporting himself from a closed booth to a chair some ten feet away. Among the admirers who congratulate him backstage is Howard (Simon McBurney), a fellow magician who has always looked up to him.
The super rationalist Stanley’s avocation has been to unmask fake mediums and spiritualists, so Howard asks him to help in exposing Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), an American clairvoyant who has mesmerized members of a wealthy Pittsburgh family now residing in Provence. The mother Grace Catledge (Jackie Weaver) hopes to connect with her dead husband through Sophie, whereas her foppish son Brice (Hamish Linklater), has fallen madly in love with her, frequently serenading her while singing off-key and strumming a ukulele, promising her endless bliss. Howard says that he has studied Sophie during her séances but can discover no trickery.
Posing as a businessman, Stanley accompanies his friend to the estate of his wise Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) and then to that of The Catledges’. He first sees how beautiful Sophie is, but also is certain that she is a fake. Each of their encounters becomes sort of a duel of wits, and when, during a séance the candle rises above the table, Howard grabs it, suprisedly exclaiming that it really is floating without any visible support. Stanley is impressed, but all the more determined to show up Sophie as a fraud.
However, over the next few days, he grows more impressed with her beauty, and during a convenient rainstorm, his romantic feelings toward her increase when they take refuge in the old observatory he had often visited as a boy when living with his Aunt. (Of course, it is unlocked, no fear of vandals or thieves in Allen’s fairty tale-like Provence.) Then, when Sophie reveals some facts about his past, “known only to God,” as Stanley puts it, he becomes a believer. His arrogant certainty that the spiritual universe does not exist is replaced by an unfamiliar humility as he admits that he has been wrong for most of his life.
There is a very tender scene when, his beloved Aunt Vanessa hovering between life and death as a result of an auto accident, Stanley sits and begins to pray. It begins like one of those fox hole prayers of desperation, Stanely admitting he has not been on a familiar basis with God or whomever. But just as he is ready to submit to a Higher Power, his old rationalistic mindset kicks in, and the moment of faith slips away. This scene reminded me of what C.S. Lewis wrote in his satirical book The Screwtape Letters, the whimsical series of letter exchanged between a senior devil in Hell, who gives his name to the book, and his nephew Wormwood. The latter is a novice devil assigned to destroy the soul of a human being on earth. When his unnamed target joins a church, the worried novice writes to Screwtape whose advice is not to worry, that some of his best conquests have been staunch church members. He tells Wormwood that when the newly pious man is saying his prayers that he should distract him by something, such as, in church drawing to his attention the squeak of someone’s shoes walking down the aisle. Or, as he is pondering faith and making a commitment, to plant the thought that this is too important to decide now, that he should go to lunch and decide later. At the moment that Stanley reverts to his old cynical self I could imagine old Screwtape saying, “Well done, well done. You’ve pulled back another victim from a life of faith in that obnoxious Creator!”
Woody Allen’s film is a wonderful blend of strong performances; gorgeous scenery photographed in almost glowing colors by Darius Khondji; sumptuous period costumes (no doubt bound to be mentioned at Oscar times); shiny, sleek roadsters that will make vintage car lovers drool; and well chosen pop songs of the time, plus short portions of Stravinsky, Ravel and Beethoven.
Cole Porter’s “You Do Something For Me” is an apt theme song, with it’s lines that decsribe so well Stanley’s reaction to Sophia, “Let me live ‘neath your spell./Do do that vodoo that you do so well. /For you do something to me/That nobody else can do.” The film might not be nearly as profound as Crimes & Misdemeanors, but it does attain the high level of Blue Jasmine, and well worth your time, both to watch and discuss.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September 2014 issue of Visual Parables.