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Cannes #1: Woody Allen gets sexy

"Is it sexy?" Emily Mortimer, Woody Allen, Scarlett Johannson andJonathan Rhys Meyers at a Cannes press conference for "Match Point."

CANNES, France – Woody Allen is back. He hasn’t exactly been away, but not many of his recent films have stirred up the kind of excitement inspired here Thursday by “Match Point,” which is a thriller involving tennis, shotguns and adultery.

“Would you say this is the sexiest movie you’ve ever made?” he was asked after the film’s first screening at Cannes. He replied in pure Woodyese: “Well, it was very discreetly done, without lot of a lot of overt sex and violence, and so, ah, it may have been sexy for one of my movies, but, ah…”

Oh, it was sexy all right, and violent. It was also literate, hard-edged and seductive in its story of an Irish tennis pro who settles in London, marries the boss’s daughter, impregnates the former girlfriend of his new brother-in-law, and then grows desperate at the thought of losing his big job and chauffeured car and the weekends in the country.

The movie represents a break for Allen from his routine of filming a movie every year in or near Manhattan. He shot it in London, with a mostly British cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chris, a poor Irish boy who has some success on the tennis tour, becomes a pro at a London club, lucks into friendship with a rich young man (Matthew Goode), catches the eye of his rich sister (Emily Mortimer), and is taken under the wing of his rich father (Brian Cox). What bad luck when Chris meets the rich boy’s American girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) and falls very seriously into lust.

“Men think I may be something special,” she tells him, in one of their first flirtatious conversations.

“Well, are you?”

“No one has ever asked for their money back.”

The movie is rich in humor and irony, like a literate Hitchcock story. Tension coils tightly under the surface as the pleasant young man becomes a liar, an adulterer, a betrayer of trust, and finally a man who thinks it might be convenient to commit murder. Allen toys with the audience in scenes where Chris seems about to be discovered, exposed, trapped or disgraced.

Allen’s press conference was one of those typical Cannes séances in which impenetrable questions inspire inscrutable answers. As usual, almost all the questions went to the director, while Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer and Jonathan Rhys Meyers smiled and smiled and were possibly thinking that this, then, was what it was like to be Prince Philip. “I’m hard of hearing,” Allen explained, when he seemed to misunderstand some of the questions, although never the ones he wanted to answer. Consider this exchange:

Q. “This is your 36th film. At this point in your career, how much is passion, and how much is force of habit?”

A. “Making films is a distraction for me. If I didn’t have them, if I had nothing to distract me, I would be fighting depression, anxiety, terror. I’m like a mental patient doing finger painting. It’s therapeutic. Even if nobody comes to see my film, I’ve still had the benefit of living in another world for a year, and I’ve kept myself from having to live in the real world. I, uh, don’t know if that answers your little question.”

Allen said he is able to get his movies financed in America, but increasingly the studios “want to read the script, watch the dailies, and make their little suggestions. I can’t work that way. I just want them to give me the money in a brown paper bag and go away.” His working method is “very democratic: Everyone is paid nothing, and billed in alphabetical order.” Working in England is a pleasure, “especially because the English actors speak so wonderfully; even with the smallest parts, you could understand every word.” Rhys Meyers cleared his throat: “Just for the record, I’m Irish.”

For years it was said that a Woody Allen picture cost $3 million and grossed $9 million, and then he got to make another one. “Some of my films have never played south of the Mason-Dixon line,” he once told me.

“Match Point" has a good chance, I suspect, of being his biggest box office success since "Annie Hall" and "Hannah and Her Sisters." It’s commercial, it will wrap audiences in its grip, and yet it’s a Woody Allen picture.

“The film seems very cynical,” one critic said during the press conference.

Allen: “Cynicism is reality with maybe an alternate spelling.”

* * *

Allen’s triumph was a good start for my first morning at Cannes. Then it was directly downhill. Along with a few dozen other critics, I journeyed to the Olympia cinema on a side street for a 2 p.m. screening of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” a satirical murder mystery, part Raymond Chandler, part David Lynch, all starring Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. My review of the film can wait, because I am too eager to review the screening.

All of us in the lobby, including the film’s publicist, agreed the screening was to start at 2 p.m. But the theater management insisted it had been screened at noon, as agreed. Perhaps there was a noon screening, we argued, but that did not in itself make a 2 p.m. screening impossible. The publicist asked a theater employee, a grandmotherly type with considerable oomph, if there was a screening room available.

Theatre neuf,” the grandmother meditated, shrugging as if to suggest that anyone who saw a movie in theater neuf would have to be responsible for the consequences. The Olympia has nine screens of various sizes, which during the festival are all devoted to screenings of films that their makers earnestly hope will be opening soon at a theater near you.

“Theater nine!” the publicist said cheerfully, but then a gloomy presence materialized from the depths of the theater and was identified as le manager.

“Impossible!” he said, or something similar. In such situations all French words sound like impossible! to me.

But…we argued. Then theater is empty! The print is here! The audience is standing by! And, viola! -- here is the publicist to make all the arrangements.

The manager thought deeply and announced that he would allow the screening on condition that he speak on the telephone to someone from Warner Brothers. But not just anyone from Warner Brothers would do. He specified one person and one person only from Warner Brothers who he would consent to speak with.

The publicist raced out into the alley where her cell phone worked better, and in five minutes or less she was gesturing wildly to the manager: “Monsieur le Warner Brothers!

The manager walked outside and paced back and forth dubiously, waving his free arm as he consulted with the one and only man to whom he would consent to talk.

“Who is he talking to?” I asked a colleague who had become involved as a negotiator.

“The Senior International Vice President of Warner Brothers. Or he thinks he is.”

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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