Following the critical and commercial drubbing of Stardust Memories, Woody Allen wrote and directed A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. If you didn’t get the message from Interiors or from Stardust Memories, it must have now been pretty clear: Woody was going to make films that interested him. That’s the priority. Not big audiences, and not always big laughs. If he wanted to make a sweet farce about six people at the turn of the nineteenth century bed-hopping in the countryside, he would.
This is one of those Woody films I’d seen once and had pretty much forgotten, except for the exceptional cast. There’s José Ferrer as a professor who loves the sound of his own voice. There’s Julie Hagerty as a liberated nurse. There’s Mary Steenburgen as Woody’s frustrated wife. And there’s Mia Farrow in her first Woody Allen movie. It’s far from her best performance, possibly because it’s far from her best character. The cast also features Tony Roberts and Woody playing essentially olde worlde versions of their buddy act from Annie Hall. In this case Woody is an inventor of contraptions (including a conduit to the spirit world) and Tony Roberts is a lothario doctor.
While the characters bicker over big issues, and now typical Woody issues, of love and death, there is also another conflict at play here. It’s the same one we saw in Manhattan, between intellectual classes. Where most drama thrives on the conflict between sexes or economic groups (and Woody’s drama certainly also does that), he is also interested in the conflict between, in this case, a published author and a university professor. Perhaps it’s this rarefied academic friction which sometimes alienates audiences.
Content aside, Woody’s filmmaking technique takes another step forward here. After the grim black and white of Stardust Memories, this film is luminous. The countryside looks absolutely gorgeous, and the use of Mendelssohn for the soundtrack is inspired. This is a previously unseen pastoral Woody at work, and in a clearly defined time period. Unlike Love And Death, though, the setting is not a starting place to make jokes. This is a straight period picture.
But is it any good? It’s charming, it’s inoffensive, but after watching it again this week, it still feels kind of inconsequential. Not every film has to make a grand statement, but this one feels like little more than a lark. In interviews, Woody has almost described its creation as such. He wrote it in a couple of weeks while waiting during preproduction on his next film, Zelig. In fact, both films were shot simultaneously.
I realised while I was watching A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy that we’re now into Woody’s 80s period, and the signifiers are all here: Woody in a non-central role as part of an ensemble; Mia Farrow; touches of magic realism; and a subject that seems obscure and may or may not resonate with audiences. This one didn’t. Again today, it’s pleasant but once it’s over, it’s soon forgotten.
Next week: Zelig