Rifkin’s Festival isn’t necessarily major Allen, but it’s a light romp that exists at a fascinating nexus of the director’s career-long pursuits and predilections.
There’s a saying that goes something like, no matter how many times you’ve told a joke, if it’s genuinely funny and you know how to say it, it’ll still land. If there’s one director who has fully realized this essential quality in the realm of cinema, it’s pretty clearly Woody Allen. However, the past few years have seen Allen’s recent films met with criticisms of repetitiveness or for losing some of the substance of his better works to a thinly-stretched template, but such assertions are altogether too simple. On the contrary, Allen has proved that — whether by confidence or over-satisfaction — he has established a solid foundation for his particular cinematic world that allows him to re-articulate his stories in prismatic ways; that is, to tackle a few recurrent themes over and over again, while celebrating the beautiful minutiae of modern urban life that he so truly adores.
In that sense, then, his latest film, Rifkin’s Festival — which demonstrates Allen’s mastery in combining various modes of comedy — is no exception. Coming on the heels of 2020’s A Rainy Day in New York, Allen again, explicitly, aims for one of his constant concerns: an exploration of the the charm and beauty of a city — here, the Spanish coastal town of San Sebastián — through the perambulations of yet another daydreaming flâneur. But here, Allen pivots from Timothée Chalamet’s young romantic Gatsby Welles in Rainy Day to septuagenarian Shawn Wallace in the role of Mort Rifkin, a New Yorker and film lecturer who, like many of Allen’s (anti)heroes, is living a life of whimsicality. With Mort, Shawn is playing the closest Allen analogue — since Larry David’s character in Whatever Works, at least — not played by the director himself, a more-or-less snobbish, old-fashioned intellectual afflicted by a cocktail of psychological, nosophobic, and existential crises. And indeed, Wallace’s short, slightly chubby visage and goofily eccentric demeanor easily articulate Mort’s uneasy interiority.
Attending the San Sebastián Film Festival with his younger, pleasure-seeking publicist spouse Sue (Gina Gershon), who’s enthralled by the presence of her client, the pretentious and seductive French filmmaker Philippe Germaine (Louis Garrel), Mort’s arc treads familiar thematic territory for Allen: it’s another story about unsuitable partners who accidentally — whether by chance, fate, or the gods’ amusement — encounter their perfect matches. But unlike Owen Wilson’s Gil from Midnight in Paris, Mort doesn’t have to wait for a clock to strike to find himself amongst desired company; instead, Allen allows Mort to find himself within his all-time favorite master filmmakers’ chef d’oeuvres through lucid dreams (and nightmares) — it goes without saying for those familiar with Allen that this results in playful reconstructions of works by Welles, Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Buñuel and Lelouche (for a director who’s shown no interest in changing his classic B&W opening titles across the years, any expectation that he would update his personal film canon is preposterous). In other words, while Mort’s “real-world” festival experience consists of ludicrous, à la mode events and empty appraisals of new artists — in one of the film’s earliest scenes, a journalist asks an actress, “Were all of your orgasms special effects?” (a nice comedy of manners riff) — he prefers to stick to the imaginary film festival in his head (surrealism).
The stark contrast between Mort Rifkin and Philippe Germaine provides another dimension to the film (offering both behavioral and situational comedy): the former, a snob who appreciates European arthouse classics, and the latter, an ambitious and morally irresponsible director who ironically makes “political” films while appreciating works of old Hollywood masters like Howard Hawks and John Ford. That’s to say, it seems like little of either’s ways of living are reflected in their movie tastes; one is hilariously set against Hollywood endings while the other lives a life of frivolity while his films pretend to tackle tragic social issues. Reliving the remarkable scenes from his favorite films finds Mort confronting repressed feelings of shame, awkwardness, and anxiety, and the resultant metaphor sees Mort, who has pushed people away due to his egocentric taste, begin to feel minor murmurs of the heart that lead him to meet Dr. Jo Rojas (Elena Anaya), a woman who has much in common with Mort, not least of which is a sad, toxic relationship with her painter husband (Enrique Arce).
Allen supplements these familiar musings with an invigorated visual palette. Once again teaming up with preferred DP Vittorio Storaro, Allen shapes the images of Rifkin’s Festival in provocative ways. The usage of cold blue as contrast to the film’s warm yellows, oranges, and reds — as crucial here as the cloudy-sunny dichotomy was to creating Rainy Day’s vivid dream-like quality) — works overtime to reveal conceptual and expressive aspects of the characters. Take, for instance, the scene where Mort meets Dr. Rojas (“rojas” of course meaning “red” in Spanish): in this first encounter, Mort is wearing a light blue shirt while she is wearing a deep red blouse. Later, as feelings grow, the two sit down for dinner in a local restaurant, Mort still in the same shirt while Jo is wearing a dark purplish-blue outfit with a pink and red floral pattern on it. And later, when she picks up Mort in a red car to explore the city of San Sebastián together, the old man wears a light pink shirt while Rojas reappears in a red jacket — it’s as if the two are absorbing parts of the other, merging and moving Mort from some cold, “empty” life to one of passion.
Mort Rifkin, whose very name is not without implication (“mort” meaning “dead” in French), in his final imaginary encounter finds himself in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal playing chess with Death (Christoph Waltz) as they share some insights about the meaning(lessness) of life and the inevitability of death, directly nodding to Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (absurdism). And in this way, it’s not difficult to regard the peculiar Allen creation of Mort as a living-dead man, one who’s facing his final curtain by living out his remaining life as a series of dreams within a dream (or films within a film). But despite his disinclination toward Hollywood endings, Death here refuses to take Mort, leaving him with a version of a happy ending as he advises the old man to take care of his health and reminding him that even though life is meaningless, it shouldn’t be lived emptily. And indeed, this summation offers something of a key to Allen’s career: an artist who reflects an intersection of classic Hollywood films and modernist European cinema, intellectually concerned with grand existential questions while reveling in the small emotions and beauties of life. Rifkin’s Festival isn’t a major Woody Allen effort by most measures, but it is a puzzle piece that falls easily into place within the director’s filmography, both delineating and clarifying his larger cinematic universe, one both apropos of nothing and everything, a grand cosmic comedy.