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Leave it to Woody Allen to make an irreverent burlesque about all things Russian, particularly its history, literature and film culture. While it might not have seemed a likely commercial prospect for a film in 1975, it's even harder now to imagine a major studio bankrolling a project like Love and Death despite the financial clout of the director or star. Yet, Love and Death touched on all the familiar Allen themes his fans had grown to love - relationships, sex, marriage, and self-deprecation - in the context of a nineteenth-century story about Boris Dimitrovich Grushenko, a cowardly peasant who is talked into assassinating Napoleon by his cousin, Sonya (Diane Keaton). Not only was Woody able to question religious and philosophical concerns within the comic framework of Love and Death, but he was able to pay homage to some of his favorite films: a battlefield hawker who sells blinis to the troops recalls Harpo Marx in Duck Soup (1933), a dueling scene appears modeled on a Bob Hope routine in Monsieur Beaucaire (1946), the climax is a direct nod to Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) and 'The Scythian Suite' by Stravinsky is used as background music in one scene, just as it was in Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938). Famous dialogue from the novels of Tolstoy like War and Peace and Anna Karenina is also parodied along with in-jokes about the poetry of T.S. Eliot.
More than anything, Love and Death was a happy accident. Originally, Allen was trying to write a romantic comedy about two clever New Yorkers who solve a murder but wasn't able to work out the details to his satisfaction. With time running out on his script deadline, he happened to notice a book on Russian history in his library and the ideas began to flow. (He would later return to flesh out the characters of his two New Yorkers in Annie Hall (1977) and work out the crime-solving plot in Manhattan Murder Mystery, 1993)
Filmed on location in France and Hungary by Ghislain Cloquet, Love and Death was not an easy shoot. Woody sprained his back after falling on some ice in front of the Eiffel Tower, Diane Keaton suffered minor injuries to her eye from a violin bow, Producer Charles Joffe was rendered inactive by a bout of food poisoning, a supporting actor broke both legs in a car accident, the negative for an elaborate banquet scene was damaged and the scene had to be re-shot, the list goes on and on. In a later Esquire article, Allen said, "When good weather was needed, it rained. When rain was needed, it was sunny. The cameraman was Belgian, his crew French. The underlings were Hungarian, the extras were Russian. I speak only English - and not really that well. Each shot was chaos. By the time my directions were translated, what should have been a battle scene ended up as a dance marathon. In scenes where Keaton and I were supposed to stroll as lovers, Budapest suffered its worst weather in twenty-five years." Although Allen vowed to never again film outside of the United States (a rule he broke for Everyone Says I Love You in 1996), Love and Death was the director's most technically accomplished film to date (number five) and even Woody admitted it was "my funniest picture to that time."
Director: Woody Allen
Producer: Martin Poll, Charles H. Joffe, Fred T. Gallo
Screenplay: Woody Allen, Mildred Cram, Donald Ogden Stewart
Cinematography: Ghislain Cloquet
Editor: George Hively (uncredited), Ron Kalish, Ralph Rosenblum
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Art Designer: Willy Holt
Set Designer: Claude Reytinas
Cast: Woody Allen (Boris Dimitrovich Grushenko), Diane Keaton (Sonja), Georges Adet (Old Nehamkin), Frank Adu (Drill Sergeant), Edward Ardisson (Priest).
by Jeff Stafford