Somehow, Allen keeps making movies
Well, it finally happened. After literal decades of being accused, with some credibility, of being a child molester, the release of a new Woody Allen movie has become decisively irrelevant. For this, we can probably thank last year’s Allen v. Farrow from HBO, which finally put the entire Dylan Farrow story in a public enough setting that we couldn’t ignore it any more. Having lost distribution from Sony, and then Amazon, the 86-year-old director has now released his second film through the MPI Media Group. But Rifkin’s Festival features a surprising twist on the usual Allen formula, probably not unrelated to the aforementioned events. There’s actually a fair amount of humility.
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The titular Rifkin of Rifkin’s Festival is played by Wallace Shawn–probably his biggest role since My Dinner With Andre, even if you’re more likely to recognize him as the comic sub-villain from The Princess Bride. Rifkin is a role that has a lot more in common with that classic (My Dinner With Andre, not The Princess Bride) than the usual Woody Allen perspective character archetype. Yes, Rifkin is neurotic. But his first scene, and our overall framing device despite the moving discarding it quickly, is just him talking to a therapist. The weird part about Rifkin is that despite seemingly going over some pretty intense events at the San Sebastian Film Festival he mostly just feels…not all that bad really.
Rifkin spends nearly all of the first act sulking over how his wife Sue, played by Gina Gershon, is probably cheating on him with hot-shot director Philippe, played by Louis Garrel. But just when evidence actually starts piling up that Philippe really is trying to seduce his wife, Rifkin loses interest in that storyline entirely to instead chase after Dr. Rojas, played by Elena Anaya. Despite this interest initially seeming borderline creepy, as the plot moves on its increasingly unclear how invested Rifkin is in actually trying to have an affair with Dr. Rojas as opposed to just having pleasant conversations with her.
Rifkin isn’t lonely, he just doesn’t have anything to do. In a very subtly effective satirical swipe, Rifkin as well as nearly everyone he meets manages to avoid watching any actual movies at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Rifkin loves the European classics, but sees them as largely irrelevant to the modern film industry. He expresses disgust at people comparing Philippe to Truffaut, but isn’t willing to extend a whole lot of energy explaining why, because he knows that outside the classroom no one really wants to hear his opinions about classic films versus modern ones.
We can still tell that Rifkin is sincerely drawn to the magnetic quality of classic film because it inhabits his dreamworld. By the end he’s literally debating with his own subconscious abstraction of Ingmar Bergman about the meaning of life and death, concluding that life is meaningless yet not empty, since he can choose to spend his life doing what he wants. Rifkin thought he could fulfill himself as a novelist, and realized this was always a dumb idea, because what he really loved was the idea of critique, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that.
Instead of spending his time with modern film industry people who he doesn’t even like that much, and that includes his wife, Rifkin prefers the dream world. He also prefers the company of Dr. Rojas because despite her having a very cinematic story it is, in actuality, just a messy and unpleasant failed relationship with an artist who we eventually find out isn’t even that attractive.
The insatiable sexual appetites of men have actively harmed Dr. Rojas’s life. Then we get Sue, who seems to be on the opposite end of that cycle. By the end of the movie she’s already making assumptions about Philippe that Rifkin doesn’t have the heart to contradict because he doesn’t really want her back anyway. Rifkin is surprised by his own calmness in the midst of all this, suggesting that for all his ambivalence he knows a lot more about life than he ever really appreciated.
The swipes at film festival culture are almost certainly more petty than principled. Even before Allen v. Farrow major festivals had lost interest in Woody Allen, realizing correctly that blowback from acknowledging his existence wasn’t worth his presence in the age of #MeToo. I wouldn’t hold it against anyone for refusing to watch Rifkin’s Festival for that exact reason- which is why I included more spoilers than usual here.
What makes Rifkin’s Festival worthwhile, though, is that it’s a perspective of the film industry from the ultimate insider, one who may not repent his past crimes, but who at least acknowledges that they happened, and knows that other people acknowledged that they happened too. There’s a genuine love for the cinema, yet a grounded attitude in terms of cinema’s ability to actually change anything, and even an argument that expecting it to change anything is a fool’s errand. Rifkin’s Festival is far from a polemic against the vapidity of lives that revolve entirely around film but it’s as close as to one as we’re ever likely to get from a big name director. It exceeded my expectations, if nothing else, and Wallace Shawn is genuinely great in it. A pity it took #MeToo wrecking Woody Allen’s career to finally get him another leading role.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the actress Ingrid Bergman instead of the director Ingmar Bergman.