Match Point marked the start of yet another period in Woody Allen’s career, simultaneously breaking a long streak flops and inaugurating a surprising new tradition of filming outside his usual location of New York. In fact there is a great deal that is surprising about this film. (Speaking of which, spoilers follow.)
The story concerns a social climber, Christopher (Jonathan Rhys Myers), who has given up his tennis career and moved to London. There he meets and marries the extremely wealthy Chloe (Emily Mortimer) while also conducting an affair with Nola (Scarlett Johansson), the girlfriend of his new brother-in-law, Tom (Matthew Goode). When the affair threatens to undo his new life of wealth and privilege, Christopher murders Nola and, through sheer luck, gets away with it.
Even before the film begins, with its scratchy old recordings of opera over the main titles instead of the usual scratchy old recordings of jazz, we know this is something different for Woody. But it’s the change of location that really sets this apart. Apparently the film was only made in the UK after Woody couldn’t get funding in New York. The change is particularly fortuitous for the film since its plot perfectly exploits the inherent tensions of the British class system.
But besides its new setting and its unusual soundtrack, what really surprises about Match Point is the way Woody tells its story. The film has a cool, clipped, contemporary style which is totally at odds with the rambling predictability of the comedies he was making just a few years before. Here everything is tight, sexually charged and suspenseful. You could almost claim it as a Hitchcockian thriller, with its dark irony and edge-of-seat murder sequence.
Then there are still a few things which mark the film as rising above its thriller genre. Take the way Nola is introduced: smoking, backlit and full of innuendo. She could be a stock femme fatale, except that her character is rounded out dramatically in subsequent scenes, and grounded in reality when her trysts with Christopher lead to an unwanted pregnancy.
Take also the ghostly appearance of Nola and her elderly neighbour which Christopher has dispatched as part of his murder, staged to appear as a drugs-related robbery gone wrong. They both appear to Chritopher one night when he is alone, asking why they had to die. This is the stuff of existential Woody, asking questions about crime and punishment (guess which book Christopher reads early on) and positing that we all create our own moral universe. Similar themes appear in Crimes and Misdemeanours and Shadows and Fog. Then there is also the film’s theme of luck and the role it plays in our lives, symbolised by a tennis ball hitting the net with an equal chance of falling either way to provide either victory or loss.
Woody Allen claims Match Point as one of his best films, which is high praise from someone who routinely dismisses his own work. I have to agree. Both in terms of its construction and what it has to say, it seems to be working on another level compared to earlier films. Even just the way the lead character is handled, with small cutaways which define him (reading study notes to Dostoevsky, shopping for luxury brands) is done so economically and subtly. We spend so long with Chris that by the end of the film, when there are more and more quiet moments alone with him, we know exactly what dark thoughts are running through his mind.
Like most people, I was surprised and impressed by Match Point when it came out, and I enjoyed revisiting its cynical, precision storytelling again this week. This is the first of Woody Allen’s films I have on Blu-ray, and it made a welcome change to see one of his films in HD, even if the DTS audio is just his standard mono mix. But as the film points out, you can’t have it both ways.
Next week: Scoop