Love and Death is a 1975 comedy film by Woody Allen. Starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Love and Death is a satirical take on Russian epic novels. Coming in between Sleeper and Annie Hall, Love and Death is in many respects an artistic transition between the two. It is one of the last of Allen's movies that tries to get as many laughs as possible, but contains a lot of commentary on philosophy, a balance that Allen feels makes it one of his best and most personal films. Keaton and Allen, as Sonja and Boris, Russians living during the Napoleonic Era, engage in mock-serious philosophical debates.
When Napoleon invades the Russian Empire during the Napoleonic wars, Boris Grushenko (Allen), a coward and pacifist scholar, is forced to enlist in the Russian Army, desperate and disappointed hearing the news that his cousin Sonja (Keaton) is to wed a herring merchant. He inadvertently captures a group of enemy soldiers, but to no avail, as the French army reaches Moscow immediately afterward. He returns and marries the recently-widowed Sonja (who really does not want to marry Boris, but promises him she will when she thinks he is about to be killed in a duel), a marriage filled with philosophical debates, and no money. Boris thinks that the French invasion of Moscow should put an end to the war. Hisnarcissistic wife, angered that the invasion will interfere with their plans to start a family that year, conceives a plot to assassinate Napoleon at his quarters. Boris and Sonja debate the matter with some degree of philosophical double-talk, and Boris reluctantly goes along with it. Sonja escapes arrest while Boris is executed despite being told by a vision that he will manage to escape.
The dialogue and scenarios parody Russian novels, particularly those by Dostoyevsky andTolstoy, such as The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, The Idiot, and War and Peace. This includes a dialogue between Boris and his father with each line alluding to or being composed entirely of Dostoevsky titles. The use of Prokofievfor the soundtrack adds to the Russian flavor of the film. Prokofiev's "Troika" from theLieutenant Kijé Suite is featured prominently, for the film's opening and closing credits, and in selected scenes in the film when a "bouncy" theme is required. The battle scene is accompanied with the music from Sergei Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky.
Some of the humour is straightforward; other jokes rely on the viewer's awareness of classic literature or contemporary European cinema. For example, the final shot of Keaton is a reference to Ingmar Bergman's Persona, the sequence with the stone lions is a parody of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and the plotline involving the Countess, her jealous lover and his duel-gone-awry with Allen's character is an homage to Bergman'sSmiles of a Summer Night. Bergman's The Seventh Seal is quoted all throughout, and theTotentanz at the end is lifted entirely.
Allen pays tribute to the humor of The Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and Charlie Chaplin throughout this film. In one scene of the movie, Allen and Diane Keaton parody a scene taken from Animal Crackers, a Marx Brothers film, which itself was a parody of a Eugene O'Neill play.
The film has grossed $20 million in North America and holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars, writing:
Miss Keaton (Diane Keaton) is very good in Love and Death, perhaps because here she gets to establish and develop a character, instead of just providing a foil, as she's often done in other Allen films ... There are dozens of little moments when their looks have to be exactly right, and they almost always are. There are shadings of comic meaning that could have gotten lost if all we had were the words, and there are whole scenes that play off facial expressions. It's a good movie to watch just for that reason, because it's been done with such care, love and lunacy.
At the 25th Berlin International Film Festival in 1975, the film won the Silver Bear for an outstanding artistic contribution.
In September 2008, in a poll held by Empire magazine, the film was voted as the 301st greatest film out of a list of 500.
The film is full of deliberate humorous anachronisms:
- In a brief interlude, Boris works as a struggling poet, reading from a poem he eventually wads up and throws out he says, "I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas," a quote lifted from T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. ("Too sentimental," Boris decides as he throws out the poem.)
- Boris (Allen) retains his trademark glasses despite their anachronistic absurdity; at one point Boris says to Sonja after a diatribe filled with exasperation and self-loathing, "Do you think God wears glasses?" and she replies, "Not with those frames!"
- In the war front against the French there are cheerleader girls wearing "Russia" t-shirts.
- A vendor, complete with New York accent and attired as if he were at a ballpark, is selling "red hots" to soldiers during a battle. Allen's character apparently offers him a large-denomination currency, and he remarks, "Hey, you got anything smaller? I just started!"
- A black Drill Instructor puts Boris through his paces. "You love Russia, don't you?" "Yes sir!" "I can't hear you!" "Yes sir!"
- In the era in which the film is set, the motion picture had not been invented yet, so the Russian Army stages a short "Hygiene Play" on the dangers of venereal disease, after which Boris "reviews" the 30-second play in the verbiage of a modern theater critic.
- Boris speaks to the audience: "There are some things worse than death. If you've ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, I'm sure you know what I mean."