The latest film from the director/writer Woody Allen
Woody Allen’s film “Rifkin’s Festival” was first released back in 2020 in Spain. Though, it was not released in the US until January 28th, 2022, which the Wikipedia page claims was due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
I would not review a Woody Allen film without addressing the controversy regarding Allen, Mia Farrow, and their daughter Dylan. I will not discuss the details as one can easily find the information with a quick google search. What I will say is that I am and will always be a fan of Woody Allen’s work. His films have inspired me as a writer, and he is an excellent storyteller. As for the accusations, I am biased because I want Woody Allen to be innocent, but if they are true then I could certainly never support such awful actions. Nevertheless, this review will be as consciously unbiased as possible and will be objectively about Woody Allen’s latest work, and not his personal life. Two things that I think should be regarded separately.
Rifkin’s Festival is the story of a married couple, Mort and Sue Rifkin, told mainly through Mort’s narration as he is telling his therapist about his visit to the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain. Mort, played by Wallace Shawn, is a film critic who once taught classes on classic films and has lived in New York his whole life. His wife Sue (Gina Gershon) is a press manager for a younger French filmmaker named Philippe (Louis Garrel), who has released an anti-war film that seems to be highly regarded.
San Sebastian makes for quite a beautiful setting for the film as Allen sticks to his signature style of romanticizing cities. The comforting and lively streets, high-end cafes, and luscious parks make for an idolization of San Sebastian just as Midnight in Paris shines a light on Paris’s most scenic spots. It’s a new and fresh location with all the similar camera work we see in all of Allen’s 21st century films.
The theme of the film: life, love, death, and existentialism. Again, these are very much common traits throughout Allen’s films. Phillipe seems to be the contrasting antagonist to Mort, as he is a younger and better-looking man who is heavily involved in modern world politics. In a scene with Sue, Mort tells her politics are trivial and don’t answer the “big questions” which get mentioned again in the film. These “big questions” refer to the meaning of life and the purpose of man.
The conflict begins as Mort grows suspicious of Sue’s obvious infatuation with Philippe. He seems to be in denial of the situation, but he quickly develops chest pains that seem to be a physical manifestation of his jealousy. Mort tries desperately to get some alone time with his wife, but she brings Philippe along for every meal and event. The only time Mort and Sue are alone is when they are in their hotel room, but Sue still seems preoccupied as she is constantly fixing her makeup and picking outfits more so than listening to her husband’s concerns.
This all changes when Mort mentions his chest pains to a friend and gets referred to an excellent doctor. A doctor that also happens to be a beautiful and intelligent woman named Joanna Rojas (Elena Anaya). Following his first appointment, Mort seems to forget all about his wife and Philippe and becomes obsessed with the beautiful doctor. He soon starts making up other health ails so he can find an excuse to visit Dr. Rojas again. Through some mutual friends, Mort learns Dr. Rojas is unhappily married to a dramatic artist who often sleeps with the women he paints. Mort witnesses Joanna’s unhappiness firsthand during his second doctor’s appointment when Joanna takes a call from her husband and is heard fighting with him before hanging up in tears. Mort comforts Joanna over a drink and the two become intertwined into each other’s stories.
The two main relationships in the film are quite similar. Mort and Sue have long been married and have been faithful to each other for many years. Sue fell in love with Mort’s mind, he was a genius writer with so much potential. It’s clear that they once truly loved one another but in their later years have grown distant. Sue wants to experience more excitement and thrills while she is still relatively young and attractive. Joanna, much like Sue, married her husband for his mind and potential. She puts up with his affairs and outburst because she thinks an artist can’t be held to conventional standards, or so she tells herself. During her talks with Mort, it’s clear that she pictured her life going differently and often wonders about who she really is. She clearly wants to run from her current life, but she is scared to take that leap into the unknown.
Sue and Joann’s husband are similar in that they represent the human urge to love freely and seek pleasure during our time here on earth. While Mort and Joanna represent the side of us that wants to ditch our current lives and truly find ourselves. Both are quite non-traditional in that they go against the idea of staying married or working things out between spouses. This goes along with Woody’s underlying message throughout many of his films. Life is short, too short to be miserable and too significant to waste.
Overall, I found the movie to be decent but not great. I am not going around recommending it to my friends, but any fan of Woody Allen should watch it once. The story is good, and I enjoyed the ending but some parts of it seemed too fictional. I love Wallace Shawn, but he shouldn’t have played Mort. It just doesn’t make sense. Shawn, at the time of filming was 76 years old, Gina Gershon is 19 years younger than him, and Elena Anaya is 32 years younger. I know Woody Allen has always casted much younger and beautiful women to play as co-stars of the main character (usually played by himself), but in this film in particular, the contrast of age and beauty seems to break the limit of believability. If Allen wasn’t going to play the role himself, he could have casted someone closer to Gina Gershon’s age at least. I don’t mean to sound ageist but in what world is Shawn Wallace charming his way into a somewhat intimate relationship with a middle-aged bombshell of a woman.
Despite the disparities in the casting, Rifkin’s Festival is clearly Allen’s tribute film for the French New Wave film era which heavily inspired his own career. Throughout the film we see black and white scenes that mimic scenes from classics like “Jules and Jim” and “Breathless”, amongst others. To those not knowing of these cinematic classics, the dream-like scenes could come across as strange and out of place. I don’t find that to be an issue, this film isn’t for everyone, and I don’t think it should be. Woody Allen can’t have that many more films left in him and I’m glad he’s using this film to pay his respects to the past. I am probably the only one of my friends who has even heard of French New Wave or knows the names Truffaut and Godard. As much as I hate to say it, Woody Allen is becoming a name of the past. Woody Allen has blessed the world with quite the collection of films, and he has already solidified his name into cinematic history. What he does with the rest of his career is just a bonus. I don’t except another Manhattan or Annie Hall from him at this point, so Rifkin’s Festival is an acceptable addition to his life’s work.
One scene, stood out amongst the rest. A scene between Mort and Death, played by Christoph Waltz. The scene itself was taken from the The Seventh Seal, a Swedish film from 1957. The two meet on the beach and play a game of chess. During the encounter Mort tells death “I’ll never come to terms with you” sparking a conversation about Mort’s life and who he really is. The scene is riddled with Allen’s honest and often stoic views of life and purpose. It’s hard to believe that this is just another scene and not Woody Allen’s own way of contemplating his own inevitable death. It’s humorous and lighthearted on the surface but beneath that, it is weighty expression of a man’s fear of death.
Without this scene, I would rank Rifkin’s Festival around a 4/10, with it, I give the film a 6.2/10. I know that doesn’t sound like a great score, but Allen has set the bar high for himself. With his sheer number of films, it is acceptable that some of them are just okay. It won’t be a classic, it won’t be remembered, and it won’t be awarded. Yet, it is definitely Allen.