Addict (drugaddict) wrote,

Scarlett Johansson wears her blond hair up, which brings out the oval shape of her face and the soft

“Match Point,” 
Issue of 2006-01-09
Posted 2006-01-02

You could say that Woody Allen, by shifting his milieu from New York’s Upper East Side to London’s elegant Belgravia, has not so much re-invented himself (as some have suggested) as gone back to the motherland of the Wasp good taste he’s always aspired to. But there’s no need to be rude. Whatever Allen’s needs or motives, a change of light and scenery was obviously good for him. His new movie, “Match Point,” devoted to lust, adultery, and murder, is the most vigorous thing he’s done in years. The beginning, however, is lame: we’re introduced to an Irish-born tennis pro, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a very good player—he played Andre Agassi a couple of times—who is now teaching at a posh London club, where he meets Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), the lanky, easygoing son of a wealthy family. Tom takes a shine to Chris, who comes from a poor background but has upwardly mobile tastes—he loves opera—and introduces him to his friends and relatives, including his sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). In the family box at Covent Garden, Chloe keeps shifting her gaze from “La Traviata” to the handsome young tennis player sitting behind her. Chris’s visit to the Hewett country estate follows soon after.

The trouble with these scenes is that they feel falsely debonair. The twitty rhythms and studied languor of Tom’s idiom (“I’ve got some serious cocktails to start making”) and the good-hearted effusions of Chloe, who is described as “frighteningly bright” but comes off as vapid, sound more like the small talk in a drawing-room comedy from 1956 than like the London of today. And, at first, Allen’s dramatic construction is more opportunistic than convincing: Chloe falls instantly and irreversibly in love with Chris, and her father (Brian Cox), some sort of corporate tycoon, takes Chris into his business without any hesitation. Can the English upper class really be this unguarded? At the firm, Chris rises like a moon shot, though we never find out what the business does or what he does, except dress beautifully, get driven around town in a company Jag, and talk on the phone. The movie is framed by a philosophical meditation on the importance of luck, but it’s Allen’s script, not luck, that sends Chris so rapidly into the stratosphere.

In these early glimpses of the Hewett circle, there’s another guest—Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), a young American actress of no particular talent but overwhelming allure, who is Tom’s fiancée. Nola and Chris impudently flirt when they first meet; later, they bump into each other on the street and go to a bar, and, at that moment, the movie takes off. The two great-looking outsiders are perfectly matched. The slender Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (from “Bend It Like Beckham”) has widely spaced blue eyes, slightly flaring nostrils, and a flattened upper lip—he can look pensive or brutally calculating at will. Chris, as Rhys Meyers plays him, has perfect manners joined to rather frightening sang-froid. He’s avid, as Tony Curtis used to say—avid for love, for money, for everything—and he doesn’t care who notices it. Scarlett Johansson wears her blond hair up, which brings out the oval shape of her face and the soft beauty of her features, and she, too, has an unusual upper lip, curved and fleshy, and a low, smoky voice. Allen cuts back and forth between closeups of these two; the technique couldn’t be more straightforward, but it’s richly suggestive. Nola is lost and hanging on to Tom—she has the neurotic vulnerability that has always appealed to Allen, though she’s more openly sexual than his past heroines. She views Chris with amusement as a successful interloper, and advises him not to blow it by making a pass. But he sees her as a prize that is just as available to him as to Tom. He marries the chattering heiress Chloe, but he pursues Nola, and the mutual fascination that was so powerful in the bar feeds into the most passionate and explicitly erotic love scenes that Allen has ever directed. Despite all the complaints about sex in the movies, there isn’t that much of it, and almost none that is convincing. In this movie, lust carries everything before it—at least for a while. We are warned of trouble ahead by the music that Allen has chosen to accompany the love scenes—Enrico Caruso, at his most tender and ardent, singing arias from Italian opera, the genre of art that insists that sexual passion leads to violence.

The small talk drops away, the emotional temperature rises, and the directness and speed of the movie now feel right. And a certain cruelty, which has always been lodged in the underside of Allen’s sense of character, comes out. Given the stakes in money and power, that feels right, too. Chloe wants a child, and turns herself into a fertility laboratory—consulting doctors and setting hours for Chris to make love to her. But he’s already bored, and when Nola, whom he loves, gets pregnant, he has got one woman too many on his hands. In outline, the situation resembles that of Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” (and its movie version, “A Place in the Sun”), in which a poor boy irresistibly drawn to a rich girl and all the pleasant luxuries that come with her manages to get his impoverished girlfriend pregnant. The issue for Chris comes down to this: what’s more important, love or money?

The way he “solves” his problem—by murdering one of the women— seems to have struck a number of the movie’s early viewers as unbelievable. After all, they say, this is modern life, and these things can be worked out. But intelligent people do occasionally commit murder, and not just in fictions concocted by Patricia Highsmith or P. D. James. If “Match Point” gives offense, the real reason, I suspect, is not that it’s implausible but that it forces us into complicity with a killer. Filmmakers understand the laws of narrative all too well: an audience, properly hooked by point-of-view shooting, will root for a bank robber or a murderer to get away with whatever he’s doing. Chris Wilton lies to everyone, grows more and more desperate, and, as he plans and pulls off a terrible crime, we are with him at every step. In the end, Allen returns to the role of luck and to an old obsession from “Crimes and Misdemeanors”—the question of whether there is any justice in the universe. But the abstract talk is just window dressing. “Match Point” is, at its core, the latest version of a story that has served as a bedrock of fiction for almost two hundred years: a young man from the provinces storms the big city with boldness and sexual charm and then gets in trouble. And we’re left, as always, identifying with his desire and regretting its consequences—which means, willy-nilly, chastening our own desire, too.

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