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Easing his way back into U.S. theaters after a two-year hiatus and an explosively accusatory four-part documentary, Allen v. Farrow, that aired on HBO in 2021, Woody Allen returns with Rifkin’s Festival, an airy, lazy, though rather likable overseas rom-com served with a dose of melancholia and several large portions of cinematic nostalgia.
Shot in picturesque San Sebastián and based around the city’s annual international film festival, Rifkin rehashes bits of earlier Allen efforts, including the artist character from Vicky Cristina Barcelona — does he think all Spanish men are strapping, sexed-up figurative painters? — while revisiting some of his favorite movies in a new light.
Release date: Friday, Jan. 28
Cast: Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon, Christoph Waltz, Louis Garrel, Elena Anaya, Sergi López,
Director, screenwriter: Woody Allen
The result seems to be primarily aimed at the director’s own age group — a demographic that hasn’t exactly been leading the box office charge these days and that could render this release from MPI Media Group (who briefly put out A Rainy Day in New York in 2020) DOA at home. Outside the U.S., it’s already grossed close to $2 million.
Allen regular Wallace Shawn (Manhattan) stars as Mort Rifkin, “a walking smorgasbord of neurosis,” as someone describes him, who’s arrived for a week in the beautiful seaside Basque city to accompany his publicist wife, Sue (Gina Gershon), on a press tour for a new film directed by hotshot French cineaste Philippe (Louis Garrel).
“Why are we here?” is the big question Mort throws out from the very start, voicing his predicament as a piece of battered old baggage that Sue brought along for the trip and would very much like to swap out for the hunky and pretentious Philippe. But it’s also a larger existential question he believes every great movie should be asking us.
Rifkin’s Festival deserves points for at least attempting to ponder such things, and it does so in a way so wistful and universally dissatisfied that’s it’s almost touching: Instead of making a great film himself, Allen has created his own festival of film favorites (Citizen Kane, 8½, Jules and Jim, The Seventh Seal), restaging and reshooting them as parodies in which Mort’s life and marital woes play out in pristine black-and-white clips.
Beyond serving as a guessing game for movie buffs, the scenes offer up a few easy laughs. A Fellini spoof filled with kvetching New Yorkers is fun, as is a riff on Breathless where Shawn and Gershon discuss their ideal threesome partners (Mort mentions his sister-in-law). But they’re mostly tired pieces of cinema lore that make one yearn for the works themselves, or else for some of Woody Allen’s own movies (Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors) that belong in the canon, if they’re still allowed to be in there.
Even more tired is the budding relationship between Mort and local cardiologist Jo (Elena Anaya, Sex and Lucia), which kicks off when Mort has a bout of hypochondria and falls head over heels for the significantly younger, easy-on-the-eyes doctor. The hitch is that Jo is caught in a rocky open marriage with the painter Paco (Sergi López) and only wants to use Mort as a sounding board to complain about her own sad life, leaving him little hope of finding new love.
There’s a weary, forlorn ambiance that pervades most of Rifkin’s Festival, which, even with its gorgeous setting — the film tours through lots of great San Sebastián sites, but sadly never ventures into one of its excellent pintxos bars — and its semblance of a romantic comedy scenario, makes this one of Woody’s more dour recent efforts.
Shawn walks around with a perpetual hangdog expression (someone refers to Mort as the Grinch, though he’s sort of a cross between that and the Lorax), and, perhaps more than any previous actor, he seems like the perfect surrogate for Allen himself. It’s to the film’s credit that it never gives Mort a faux happy ending, such as the one Owen Wilson got in Midnight in Paris, leaving him to more or less stew in his misery until the last scene.
The rest of the cast — ostensibly all actors willing to work with Allen even after Dylan Farrow’s allegations of sexual abuse — keep things light and silly, with kudos to Garrel for being convincingly ridiculous as a self-serious auteur who, as Sue mentions, “happens to be a fabulous bongo player.” The short scene where he lets it rip in a jazz club is one of the movie’s funniest, while a few good lines early on garner chuckles.
But despite some decent zingers and lots of sightseeing eye-candy, the overall tone of Rifkin’s Festival is bleak indeed — except, that is, for its constant praise of all the great movies gone by. Mort is a failed writer who once had a much better career as a film teacher, and one can’t help but think this is meant to be a form of self-flagellation on Allen’s part, wallowing in the reality that he’ll never be as brilliant as his idols Bergman or Fellini.
The fact that Mort dismisses the lauded Philippe as a “bullshit movie director” and scoffs at the whole festival program — the only screening he attends is for a revival of Breathless — is telling, especially when you consider that Rifkin’s Festival had its world premiere in San Sebastián last year. It’s as if Woody Allen has gotten to the point where he keeps on making movies while knowing full well they’ll never be the ones he loves.
Distributor: MPI Media Group
Production companies: The Mediapro Studio, Gravier Productions, Wildside
Cast: Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon, Christoph Waltz, Louis Garrel, Elena Anaya, Sergi López, Steve Guttenberg, Richard Kind, Tammy Blanchard, Douglas McGrath
Director, screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Erika Aronson, Jaume Roures
Executive producers: Adam B. Stern, Javier Méndez, Mario Gianani, Lorenzo Mieli, Lorenzo Gangarossa
Director of photography: Vittorio Storaro
Production designer: Alain Bainée
Costume designer: Sonia Grande
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
Composer: Stephane Wrembel
Casting: Patricia DiCerto
Sales: The MediaPro Studio
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