Cannes 2015: The perfect crime, Jean-Paul Sartre and some more existential questions in Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man” (review)

Woody Allen explores once more his favourite theme, that of the perfect crime, this time with an existential starting and ending point, and the excessively unbearable lightness that inevitably characterises each of his new films.

“In existentialism something starts happening in your life only when you have hit rock bottom.”

The aforementioned aphorism is not the only one you will hear in Woody Allen’s  45th new film. With his hero, an eccentric philosophy professor, as an excuse, Allen digests the history of philosophy almost in its entirety (from Kant to Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Heidegger and Fyodor Dostoyevsky) before putting in Joaquin Phoenix’s mouth the inimitable phrase: “Much of philosophy is simply verbal masturbation.”

“Irrational Man”’s story is as absurd as its title (shared with the book of the literary critic William Christopher Barrett who, in 1958, tried to explain existentialism to English speakers in plain language): a philosophy professor arrives in Rhode Island carrying the reputation of an alcoholic, womaniser and serious trauma in his interpersonal relations. His arrival will be as impressive as expected since his class combines the pleasure of knowledge and its simultaneous rejection, while his playing Russian roulette live at a party shocks the college’s peaceful environment. Two women, a teacher and a student, will fall at once for his charm.

Read more of our Cannes 2015 reviews here.

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Seamlessly continuing his cinematic diatribe on the aleatory nature of life, on coincidence, the turns of fate and the unexpected in human relations, Woody Allen does not do here anything different than in his previous recent films. However, he does add a certain dose of irrationality (which is not as strong as, for example, in his masterpiece “Deconstructing Harry”), since his hero is transfixed by the search for the meaning of life that in a woodyallenesque crescendo he confesses to have discovered the first time he had sex with his student.

At the same time, Woody Allen returns to one of his most favourite themes – the perfect murder, which he has explored as another Alfred Hitchcock plenty of times with the most characteristic examples being “Match Point”, “Crimes and Misemeanors” and «Cassandra’s Dream” .

Without revealing anything about the plot (generally try to avoid spoilers for your own pleasure), “Irrational Man” begins as a romance between a teacher and student and ends up as a sardonic manhunt based on the concept of guilt and the things one is “allowed “to do in order to find what one is missing in life.

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It is true, “Irrational Man” somehow constitutes one of Woody Allen’s most modern (unlike his previous… “period”) films and the one that we gratefully see as “departing” towards a madness that had in recent years disappeared completely from Allen’s rich production of work. On the other hand, one feels again that the abilities of a script (which is, of course, well-written and very woodyallenesque) that could elevate the film’s absurdity into a … jazz study on the meaning of life, fade quickly when in the second part, Allen directs with enthusiasm, but without the slightest inclination to pierce the cinemascope photography of Darius Khondji with a more critical commentary on the human condition (it is only Woody Allen’s fifth film in cinemascope after “Manhattan”, «Anything Else», “Blue Jasmine” and “Magic in the Moonlight”).

Unbearably light, with his camera stuck on fabulous Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone (credit should be also given to the third key character of Parker Posey) and without much deliberation, Woody Allen completes another chapter on the disarming experience of being a “thinking” man in a world where true philosophy is to be found in real life, but no matter how hard he tries, he doesn’t manage to commit the perfect crime.

If he escapes being arrested once again, it’s because fate – mainly that of a director in constant motion – knows better than humans how to bring closure. When you see the delightful screwball ending of “Irrational Man”, you will know exactly what we are talking about.

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More Cannes 2015 reviews:

The Lobster by Yorgos Lanthimos

Son of Saul by László Nemes

Tale of Tales by Matteo Garrone