Moving Pictures
Apr 23, 2024, 06:28AM

Luck and Death

Coup de Chance is a pleasant rehash of Woody Allen’s favorite themes.

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Unique among his generation of filmmakers, Woody Allen was always conspicuous for refusing to indulge in its key vices —the drug scene and the naïve anti-authority crusade of the counterculture most notably. His sensibility has run parallel to the track of the American New Wave. And because he never followed his contemporaries into the heights of its utopian longings, he never went through a cynical period of reaction. There was no coke-fueled manic creation and therefore no rock-bottom depression. No utopianism and no cynicism. Allen has remained a kind of joyful and sober pessimist throughout his whole career.

Whether in farces like Love and Death or hybrid comedy-dramas like the underrated Star Dust Memories or the legendary Manhattan, Allen explored questions of morality and life’s absurdity while drawing sincere laughter from his audience. Later, in masterpieces like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Deconstructing Harry, his philosophical position by then more fully worked out, he was able to flesh out his key themes: the extent to which life is dependent upon luck, the absurdity of living without answers to the most significant questions, and the necessity of illusions for the sake of a bearable life. Similarly, drawing on the influence of the European post-war cinema—especially Bergman, Renoir, and Fellini—Allen advanced his unique style long after many of the most promising directors of his generation had fallen into artistic and commercial irrelevance.

In recent years he’s continued to mine the same subject matter, with mixed results. But his latest film, Coup de Chance, has brought all of his influences and ideas together into a satisfying and appropriate late-career work. While not a masterpiece, and a film that borrows heavily from his earlier work (especially Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan Murder Mystery), Coup de Chance is nonetheless an excellent minor film. It deals with heavy subject matter, but never ponderously. It takes itself seriously enough to tell its story well, but also generates a number of laughs along the way.

Possibly helped by the fact that lead actor Niels Schneider doesn’t imitate the tics or characteristic speech patterns of the Woody Allen character, as nearly all of his younger stand-ins have—whether Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, Jason Biggs in Anything Else, or Timothee Chalamet in A Rainy Day in New YorkCoup de Chance feels fresher than Allen’s recent American productions. Similarly, Lou de Laâge, the female lead, doesn’t imitate the mannerisms of Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow. This lack of doing a Woody Allen film, reminds us how great Allen’s dialogue is when delivered properly. The screenplay hasn’t suffered from being translated, as it’s full of wonderful lines that work well in both the French soundtrack and the English subtitles—epigrams like: “Thank god for gossip. Without it we’d be stuck with real facts.”

The plot’s a recognizable variation on one of Allen’s favorite ideas: Walking down the street on her way to work, art dealer Fanny (de Laâge) runs into her childhood classmate Alain (Schneider), who confesses to a never-revealed crush he’s had on her since their schooldays. Now a writer, he captivates her in a way her husband Jean cannot. Jean (Melvil Poupaud), who works on some shady edge of finance, suddenly seems like a questionable choice. She begins to reduce their relationship to an impulse she had after the breakup of her first marriage.

Already we see one of Allen’s favorite themes—the extent to which our lives are shaped by luck. But coincidence also forces purposeful action: this chance meeting now compels Fanny to decide what kind of life she wants. Still relatively young, she feels unable to sustain her boring marriage and is drawn to the young writer who adores her. After a few chaste but flirtatious lunches in the park, she winds up sleeping with and soon falling in love with Alain. But Jean’s jealous and astute. He hires a private investigator to check into his suspicions and when the worst is confirmed he recruits several underworld associates to get rid of his rival.

“Are you sure you want to know the truth?” asks the private investigator. And here’s another key Allen theme: the truth is dangerous. As Nietzsche knew, while illusions are life-giving, the truth can be deadly. And yet we can’t help but pursue it. By the end of the film it’s clear that Jean would’ve been better off not knowing what his wife was up to on those long afternoons she spent out of the office. Here, Allen suggests in passing the possibility that the Greeks were right, that a man can’t escape his fate, and that, as Oedipus learned, knowledge comes at a terrible price.

I won’t give away all of the intricate details. Suffice it to say that just as Alain’s taken out of his lucky idyll by an aggressive decision, Jean learns how much of life really is determined by luck.

Acted perfectly and shot beautifully in Paris by Vittorio Storaro, Coup de Chance is an intelligent and dexterous reconsideration of some of the filmmaker’s core themes. While not his most inspired or memorable film, it stands solidly in the second rank of his work, as an enjoyable exercise that’s certain to please longtime fans and casual viewers alike.

—Follow Panurge on Twitter: @Panurgien


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