The perfect woman is married to your best friend. Or she’s his mistress. She’s your wife’s younger sister. Or she’s engaged to your rich brother-in-law. She’s a few months shy of being legal. She’s a student in the class you teach. Or she’s been committed to a mental institution in Hawaii. By no means is she your wife. And chances are you haven’t slept with your wife in months. You’ve been robbed of the use of your testicles.
Castration anxiety pervades the films of Woody Allen. It starts in the womb. In Deconstructing Harry (1997) he plays the author of a short story about his mother entitled “The Castrating Zionist.” In Allen’s panel of the triptych New York Stories (1989) his mother is magically and terrifyingly installed in the sky above Manhattan, where nothing he does escapes her watchful eye. Then there are the wives, equally harping and frigid to boot, or else intent on the ultimate turn-off, procreation. In the ex-girlfriend category we find another reliably offensive type—beautiful but crazy—most poignantly realized by the stunning Charlotte Rampling as Dory in Stardust Memories (1980), “a loony…sane two days a month, the other twenty-eight lost,” suicidal, anorexic. Rampling is also the subject of an experiment involving the transplant of a homely but cerebral woman’s mind into the body of a Charlotte Rampling—in order to create the perfect woman. This mind would have read her French novels. She would be “polymorphously perverse,” a phrase redolent of the 1970s deployed in three Allen films to indicate an erogenous zone enveloping the entire body. The perfect woman would also be unlikely to run away with your genitals.
Success grants the Allen hero access to the most beautiful women in the world, but he never sheds the terrified hang-ups of the frustrated adolescent. He has been disdained for playing out his fantasies onscreen, for casting himself opposite much younger women. (The facts of his life are a complicating factor here.) In the weird, raucous farces of his early days—Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971)—his love interests are plainly bimbos. He is dumbfounded by their presence and moreover by the fact that he is allowed to touch. In his mature works, a teenage Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan(1979) and a collegiate Juliet Lewis in Husbands and Wives (1992) appear to fruitful dramatic ends. Hemingway’s Tracy is a locus of innocence in a story about the messy betrayals that accompany middle age. Lewis’s precociously predatory Rain suits the latter film’s darker themes: the inevitability of infidelity, betrayal as the only faithful aspect of life.
Hostility toward his muses is a crime Allen somewhat fesses up to—”I’m not evil or anything, just sort of floundering around”—yet it has not prevented him from writing the most unforgettable female leads of the last four decades of romantic comedy. Annie Hall is a worthy, liberated niece of Hildy Johnson. That her Walter Burns was played not by Cary Grant or Robert Redford, but the runtish, four-eyed director proves once again that the end of the studio system was a victory against the tyranny of type. Remove Allen from the scene of the contemporary romantic comedy and you get either Hugh Grant’s hollow trysting or Ethan Hawke’s pretentious babbling. (Actually, without Allen’s precedent, Hawke probably wouldn’t be allowed to babble.) After “the early funny ones,” Allen’s achievement was to rehabilitate the genre for his times and to remold it in his own image. He heightened the level of neurotic moral contemplation that always drove the romantic comedy and shifted it away from the formula of reconciliation into the chaotic territory of post-sexual revolution dating, cheating, and divorce. Allen’s kindest gesture toward his heroines is that usually they are allowed to leave him.
Critics for more than a decade have made an annual ritual of castrating Woody Allen. Don’t let him fuck again! the subtext invariably reads. Each new release occasions observations on Allen’s decline, reviews to be read either as obituaries or citizen’s arrests, as if his entire career were not marred by missteps and outright flops. Artists are resented for growing old in public, especially when they age beside Julia Roberts, Charlize Theron, and Téa Leoni.
A fair amount of nonsense has therefore marked the initial reception of Melinda and Melinda. An exercise in style reliant on the absurd, it has been derided for straying from realism, for the luxury of its sets, and for its script’s elevated diction. Baseless canards, one of its characters might respond. A lack of jokes has been cited, despite an ample offering of one-liners, many of them delightfully dusty. Without Allen the actor to kick around, reviewers have nitpicked his surrogate, Will Farrell. I had always considered him a bit of a stooge, a poor man’s hybrid of Phil Hartman and Chris Farley. Yet he proves the director’s most proficient stand-in, finding an analog for the Allen’s puny awkwardness in his own lumpish frame.
The formal conceit of Melinda and Melinda is the telling of the same story in comic and tragic modes. The two versions turn out to be asymmetrical, and more suspenseful for it. The interruption of a dinner party sets both off, and they share a few elements put to contrasting use: a racetrack, a bistro, a piano, a dentist, sleeping pills, a magic lamp, the marvelous Radha Mitchell as the dual title character. It is Melinda’s innocence in the comic version and lack thereof in the tragic that differentiate the two.
Though more explicit in its formalism, Melinda and Melinda is not far from Allen’s manipulation of parallel plotlines in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and Husbands and Wives. (The presence of a conjunction in an Allen title is a good sign, except for Shadows and Fog .) In the comedy, Farrell’s Hobie, a struggling actor, and wife Susan (Amanda Peet), an aspiring director, blunder their way into divorce. She neglects him in bed, gives away his part as a psychiatrist in her film The Castration Sonata, and falls into the arms of her financier. He is freed to pursue Melinda without guilt—”Whenever I think about her, I feel like I’m on trial at Nuremberg.”That was before. Now convenience allows the comic plot to unfold without recriminations.
The unhinged tragic Melinda busts up another marriage by awakening latent desires in her old friend Laurel, played with trembling restraint by Chloë Sevigny. Here Melinda is a live wire among a crowd of frustrated sophisticates settling grimly into premature middle age, and her volatility proves her undoing.
The tragic sections lack an Allen surrogate as obvious as Will Farrell’s, but he is there, taking a Tiresias turn, in the person of Melinda herself. She may outdrink and outsmoke him, and she’s no doubt sexier, but she has all his ticks, his guilt, his checkered past, and his yearning to “find meaning in an insane world.” Because this is tragedy she is finally thwarted, and in our last glimpse is being pinned down writhing on a concrete balcony. If she had balls somebody would probably try to cut them off.