Exactly who are these people? They’re rich, obviously. They’re Parisian, which means that they are already fantasy figurines in the European curiosity shop of Woody Allen’s imagination. But does any actual modern man, no matter how rich and unfathomably French, come home from work in 2023 to request a cognac from his wife, who then calls out to the maid to bring Monsieur a cognac while she configures herself into a glamour position on the couch? Is this actually 1953? Or maybe 1923 – the Gatsby era, where Woody Allen is clearly a very enthusiastic visitor?
Coup de Chance is Woody Allen’s 50th feature film. At the grand age of 87, he has made his first film in the French language, for which all due kudos. He brings his usual potpourri of plot points – a rich couple, infidelity, an interfering mother-in-law, the aperçu that money and bookish bohemianism make restive bedfellows – to this new tale, along with some Match Point-style malfeasance. Someone is murdered. Someone else seems set to get away with it. We’re not supposed to care, however; true to his Gallic setting, Woody maintains an insistent insouciance, laced with some light philosophical musing on the role of chance in our lives. You know, the kind of thing French people talk about.
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“I make my own luck,” says the mysteriously rich Jean (Melvil Poupaud) whenever the subject arises: when he discovers a lottery ticket in his wife Fanny’s pocket, for example. That luck includes his career, which he describes as making rich people richer “which is difficult, so I help them,” but extends to his marriage to the considerably younger Fanny (Lou de Laage), an accomplished art auctioneer. Fanny met him on the rebound from a difficult marriage to a drugged-up muso, revels in his adoration and has allowed herself to be reconstructed from boho rebel into bourgeois glamourpuss. Jean monitors her phone calls and insists that he must know where she is at all times; their friends regard their marriage as perfect.
Fanny does wonder whether she might be seen as a trophy wife, but doesn’t object to being controlled in a way that is now legally recognized as abuse. But this isn’t really now: it’s 1923-1953 WoodyWorld, where Jean’s intrusiveness is significant only because it presents an obstacle to the affair Fanny is about to have. When she bumps into old schoolmate Alain (Nils Schneider) in the street, he immediately tells her he has been harboring a crush on her since they were teenagers. She agrees to go to lunch with him. He buys her a well-thumbed old edition of Mallarmé’s poems. You know – as you just know most of the turns of this plot’s screws well in advance – that Jean’s self-made luck is running out.
Several aspects of Coup de Chance are immediately striking. One is the extent to which its crisp, light tone relies largely on Herbie Hancock. Whenever grief or horror threaten to crack the meringue, the irresistible groove of jazz classic “Cantaloupe Island” pipes up to get us back into the swing – which works, although you may wonder at how much work it’s obliged to do.
The film also looks superb. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro opens up spaces – the interior of the Fourniers’ apartment, which is ingeniously unfolded before us to show the expanse of several rooms at once – before snapping them shut, following the characters closely through corridors that become as confining as rat-races, or the rails of the vintage model railway, squeezed into one of the apartment’s rooms, that Jean likes to show off to visitors. It is the visual language of paranoia.
Piano grooves and Storaro’s inventiveness cannot compensate, however, for this film’s lazy writing. Bits of business make no sense – lines from one scene are repeated almost verbatim in the next; Fanny, in common with too many of Woody’s women, is largely a blank. De Laage works hard at evoking the magically attractive presence Jean claims she has, but she is hardly more than a beautiful cipher, less trophy wife than trophy actress. The men fare better, particularly Poupaud, who manages to give even his most ridiculous lines some force while simultaneously conveying the sense that he knows how absurd they are. Even with a straight face, he seems to breathe irony.
You could say that Woody lucked out with Poupaud, although he would probably respond that he made his own luck there. And as with the ghastly Match Point – which was hailed in its day as a return to form and was a hit, despite the merry hell it played with its English setting – he may even be lucky enough to find that this divertissement will slip down as easily as a macaron.
Coup de Chance isn’t good, but it may just have enough that is familiar from the director’s long back catalog to please those who wish they really were living in 1953, a hokey 2023, or whatever year it is in WoodyWorld. He has said this will probably be his last film; it is possible that he will go out on a high. If that happens, he will be a lucky man indeed.
Title: Coup de Chance
Festival: Venice (Out of Competition)
Director-screenwriter: Woody Allen
Cast: Lou de Laâge, Valérie Lemercier, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Schneider
Running time: 1 hr 36 min
Sales agent: West End Films
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