MATCH POINT, Woody Allen, USA, 2005, 9
“And if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain … (and) we are of all men most miserable … what doth it profit me, if the dead rise not again? ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die’.”
– St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:14-32
The thing about great works of nihilistic art is that they can be indistinguishable from nihilism itself. Seemingly every critic in the world has agreed that Woody Allen’s “Match Point” is his best film in years. And it is. But it’s also his most thematically uncompromised, and therefore on the surface morally compromised, film … maybe ever.
Think back to Allen’s 1989 “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” a film he had not since surpassed in terms of critical esteem. “Match Point” is a loose remake and fleshing out of the Martin Landau-Sam Waterston-Anjelica Huston thread of that film (the “serious” part). Here, Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a failed Irish tennis player who takes a job as a “pro” at a swanky London club, and worms his way into the family of one of his clients, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). He pursues Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) unto marriage, all the while maintaining an interest in Tom’s fiancée Nola (Scarlett Johansson), i.e., his future sister-in-law (what is it with Woody and inter-family romance?) By the end, there is a double murder (triple under “Connor’s Law”). And … WARNING: unpacking the film’s morality requires more-detailed discussion of the ending later.
But just as a film, “Match Point” is a pure pleasure to watch for a few simple reasons. This is the first Allen film to have a male protagonist not played by Allen who isn’t basically doing a Woody Allen impersonation (think Kenneth Branagh in “Celebrity” for the nadir of this). Meyers is a blank-faced amoralist – “Woody” might do something immoral but he could never not obsess over it with his shrink.
The story is so much cleaner and crisper than any of his recent work. It wasn’t simply, as many have suggested, the London setting that seems to have rejuvenated Allen the writer, in the same sense that a vacation in the Caribbean might “rejuvenate” you. But also the fact that in “Match Point” he’s hardly making a comedy at all (there are laughs, but if this were a TV show and the director credit removed, it’d definitely be slotted at the Emmys and by the marketers as “drama” or at best a “dramedy”). Allen’s comic gifts had sagged noticeably in recent years, but even when he had “it,” “it” was so specifically tied to a particular place and milieu and how people speak, that he needed to leave it to avoid trying to do what he could no longer do. He had to learn a new trick to avoid trying to do the one he no longer could, basically.
One of the film’s best features is how the supporting cast plays the Hewetts – particularly Emily Mortimer as Chloe and Brian Cox as patriarch Alec. These are contemporary Upper-Class Brits, who drive out to their country estate in a Mercedes and a BMW convertible. But Allen, again perhaps because he can’t, never descends into explicit caricature – think Monty Python and the “Upper-Class Twit of the Year” sketch, or perhaps more realistically Robert Altman’s “Gosford Snark … er … Park,” for a sense of how this could have gone wrong.
The Hewetts are complacent but don’t represent Complacency, instead being basically good according to their soulless lights (with one notable offstage exception). There are few laughs explicitly at their expense, mostly the matriarch Eleanor (who belongs more in the class-neutral category of disapproving mother-in-law), but even they are handled with a light touch. For example, there are a couple of references to her fondness for the sauce; none of her falling down. Her tongue just gets a bit sharper, but in vino veritas and all that.
In almost the opposite way, Scarlett Johansson plays her struggling American actress at first as being as self-consciously femme fatale as femme fatale gets. But she gets progressively less “filmy” as she becomes more agitated, and more real. By comparison, we only see Anjelica Huston in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” at the “stalker” stage at end of the affair, a time by which it is impossible to have too much sympathy for her.
Oh yeah . . . the end. The spoilers now start.
“Match Point” is a movie that, by the end certainly, has pushed morals to the limit – having become explicitly set in a godless world among soulless men. Chris murders a pregnant Nola to hide their affair and commits a second near-simultaneous murder – of the kindly old lady who lives next door to Nola – to cover his tracks. Like Martin Landau’s Judah in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (and unlike Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment,” which Chris is shown reading at the start), he decides he can live with his homicidal spree, and the movie ends “happily” with the birth of Chris and Chloe’s baby and the line said of the baby: “I’d rather he be lucky than great.” The universe is run by luck, i.e., chance – also the point of the film’s opening monolog and the image of a tennis ball on the net (an image rhymed twice – with a ping-pong net and Johansson; and a grating and a wedding ring).
There is one reference to religion as such, a dinner conversation in a swanky restaurant in which Chris says of his father, “After he lost both legs, he found Jesus.” The brother-in-law jokes “that doesn’t seem like a fair trade.” There follows shallow dinner-party repartee – “scientists are confirming that it’s all blind chance … but I’m enjoying every minute of it”; “despair is the path of least resistance … faith is the path of least resistance … stop talking about all this.” If that is a man’s idea of people engaging in profound spiritual talk, I can only pity him. This movie is set among those who know that Christ is not risen and so should not fight the beasts in Ephesus. “Give me Paul or give me Nietzsche,” the Presbyterian evangelist R.C. Sproul once said.
There is also one late scene, the third-to-last, where Chris displays for basically the first time what one might call moral doubts. Alone at home one night, and drunk, he walks into the kitchen and talks to Nola and the old woman – communing with their ghosts. He says you learn to push guilt away – “you have to.” The neighbor points out that she and the unborn child were innocent. Chris quotes Sophocles as saying “to never have been born is the greatest boon of all.” He says it would be fitting if he was punished, but he’s not going to turn himself in like Raskolnikov. The detectives are no Porfirys; there’s no Sonya as an icon of God’s love (Chris can acknowledge its fittingness, but without God not its reality). Then there’s a new day and all is forgotten. This is what a long, dark night of the soul might look like if there were no soul in it.
Now I acknowledge that it’s more than possible that Allen takes all this seriously, as My Profound Definitive Statement On The Meaningless Of Existence. The only thing I can say, really, is that if I were a nihilist, “Match Point” would not be my idea of a brief for nihilism. I won’t suggest it’s somehow subversive “meta” work either – the theme “you can get away with it” is too constant a feature of Allen’s work, particularly since the Soon-Yi affair. I’d instead put it in the category of “work that says more than, or even contrary to, what it intends.” After all, Allen is pushing the case for nihilism to a double (or triple) murder, with at least one (or two) of the victims innocent by any possible lights – all for the sake of maintaining “a certain style of living” to which Chris says he has grown accustomed. And further, the Sophocles quote explicitly says non-existence is a blessing, presumably for Chris too, if he really believes it. (Or is it just cultural window-dressing for him?) If that’s a brief for nihilism, I have no idea what a brief against nihilism would even look like.
Is it possible to consume “Match Point” as “you can get away with murder”? Yes. (It’s also an anthropological fact that people do.) It’s also possible to come away from “Beavis and Butt-head” thinking “those guys are cool.” In fact, Beavis and Butt-head themselves would probably think that. But it requires the steeling of one’s conscience or the cauterization of one’s soul. Allen opens “Match Point” with Chris reading Dostoyevsky, and it couldn’t be more obvious that Chris (or Allen) either missed the point, doesn’t think of such things, or concluded that Raskolnikov’s mistake was having a conscience.
Allen Bloom once complained that contemporary American souls are “built without basements” and Chris, though British, seems to exemplify that. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers gives one of the greatest “bad” performances in movie history. He’s not really acting – he’s fairly blank and affectless for most of the movie. But his physical features – the wide mouth with the touch of a hidden sneer, the dark piercing eyes, like a more refined Joaquin Phoenix or a darker Malcolm McDowell in “Clockwork Orange” – provide the limited characterization of a very limited man. He shouldn’t have too much conflict or character because that would presuppose a soul he doesn’t have. Yes, he doesn’t wrestle with his conscience as Landau did throughout “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” But Judah is, in loose chronological terms, Chris’s spiritual grandfather. Judah also had a rabbi as a brother, and one who is blind by the end of that movie, rhyming with Chris’s legless father. Two generations after Judah, why should we think Chris would have much of a conscience with which to wrestle? Doesn’t concupiscence blind the intellect and all that? The very brevity, lateness, and tossed-off quality of that night scene says everything there is to say about a soul without a basement.
Originally published at The Fact Is.