Feb. 01, 2006 - Issue #537: Kevin Smith
Game, sex, Match
Match Point's lovers are embroiled in an affair that could ruin their chances for strategic social climbing
Most critics who have seen Woody Allen’s Match Point and searched for the hook that will scoop up the crowds the film deserves (crowds who have understandably avoided Allen’s recent films) have been hailing it as a “return to form,” banking on fond, stardust memories of Allen’s earlier work, particularly his dramas of the 1980s. Whether or not this ploy will work is questionable, but I’ll counter it by saying that such praise is neither accurate nor does it go far enough: Match Point is less a return to past glories than it is the reaching of a new arena of style and substance for the extremely prolific 70-year-old filmmaker. It’s not just “the best thing Allen’s done in years”—it ranks among the very best films he’s ever made.
With the radical shift in milieu from Allen’s comfy Manhattan to crisp, modern London, Match Point extends the philosophical undercurrents of his best dramas while shaping them with a considerably lighter touch, and is a meditation on the heartlessness of chance and the ruthlessness of social climbing. Though the story could only exist in a contemporary, ostensibly “post-classist” England, class is depicted as something almost genetic, inescapable and incestuous. While it’s immediately clear that Irish former tennis pro Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is single-mindedly determined to infiltrate British aristocracy at any costs, there’s no mistaking the intense, carnal connection he feels with Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a struggling actress with humble roots in middle-America who seems equally intent on the same rapid path of advancement. By pure chance, Chris and Nola are both in the process of strategically marrying into the same wealthy English family. Set to be fellow black-sheep in-laws, the notion of an affair seems absurdly reckless, yet the outsider status they share provokes an erotic charge that proves overwhelming.
That’s probably all you need to know about Match Point before seeing it—it being, after all, a suspenseful, immaculately crafted film that manoeuvres deftly through hair-pin shifts in tone and wicked plotting. (It’s difficult to say much more about the film without potential spoilers, so this is your warning.) While in the thick of it, Match Point seems to be building up to a seductive, deliciously paced revisit to familiar Allen themes of marital betrayal and moral emptiness—which would have still been entirely satisfying. It also might have been merely ironic-poetic: a predictable movie about unpredictability. Yet, with the help of richly layered performances (Rhys Meyers’s sheer desperation makes his calculation sympathetic; Johansson’s hybrid of cockiness and vulnerability under close-up is magnetic), Allen takes his time getting us involved in these characters before we suddenly see them pushed into tighter and tighter corners, and before the opera that at first seems like upper-class conceit (and terrific soundtrack material) begins to infuse the narrative with powerful melodrama.
Scanning the Allen oeuvre, Match Point demands comparison to Crimes and Misdemeanours, since both are fundamentally dark stories of fragile souls and share a common crime and chilling absence of punishment. (Incidentally, Match Point also has echoes of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.) While Crimes is one of my favourite Allen films, it actually seems, in some regards, a bit less impressive now when placed next to Match Point. The visual metaphor of a tennis ball hovering over a net that opens Match Point, and which returns later in the film in a different form is both delightfully clever and surprisingly resonant, an elegant bit of short-hand for the philosophical twists that were much more overtly worked over in Crimes. It’s indicative of a lovely balance between Allen’s growth in individual style and his studied, understated classicism; it lingers in the mind as the film closes on a note of rather complex unease. See the film, not because it’s superb Woody Allen, but because it’s superb period. V
Written and directed by Woody Allen • Starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson • Opens Fri, Feb 3
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