Rifkin's Festival review – Woody Allen's latest is a cinephile's dream (but only literally)

It’s a peculiar feeling, being at a film festival and watching a film set at that very festival. This makes Woody Allen’s Rifkin’s Festival, kicking off this year’s event in San Sebastián, a singular phenomenon – not so much a movie, more a piece of site-specific art.

In some ways, Rifkin’s Festival is absolutely familiar Allen territory, and, whatever else his detractors can or can’t accuse him of, there’s no way he’ll get off the charge of ploughing the same ground for the last couple of decades. Once again, he has made a brittle comedy about marital angst in a glamorous setting.

Wallace Shawn – more than ever resembling a turtle as sketched by Dr Seuss – plays Mort Rifkin, a film studies academic, frustrated novelist and (what else?) “walking smorgasbord of neuroses” who reluctantly attends the San Sebastián film festival. He’s there as a plus-one to his wife Sue (Gina Gershon), a PR flack who is working with lofty French auteur Philippe (Louis Garrel, sending himself up with dry aplomb). But it soon becomes apparent that Mort is de trop, as Sue embarks on a none too discreet flirtation with the glamorous cinéaste. Mort, like any good Allen hypochondriac, rushes for medical attention, and finds himself falling for local cardiologist Joana. She is played by Elena Anaya, from Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, here decidedly uncomfortable in her skin.

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The set-up yields the usual musings on art, mortality and love embedded in a sporadically witty kvetchathon, studded with a few nice gags about the movie business. A lecherous director, for example, tells a miniskirted starlet she’d be perfect to play Hannah Arendt in his film about the Eichmann trials. But Allen has a surprise up his sleeve: Rifkin runs his own festival in his head, in the form of a series of dream sequences pastiching canonical classics from the likes of Truffaut, Godard, Fellini and Buñuel. (What, you thought he’d do Tarantino?)

The parodies are crafted with varying degrees of wit and accuracy, and it does sometimes feel as if Allen is really paying homage to his own Stardust Memories. Vittorio Storaro shoots them crisply in black and white, and there are some choice tweaks: a take on Bergman’s Persona with Gershon and Anaya discussing God and death in Swedish with subtitles, and a very Jewish Citizen Kane, with the sledge renamed Rose Budnick.

Audiences may be tickled that Allen has made a film so specifically with a particular film festival in mind (there’s even a cameo by the event’s director José Luis Rebordinos). Others may wish that the latest in his “tourism cycle” (following Vicky Cristina Barcelona, To Rome With Love and Midnight in Paris), showed more curiosity about San Sebastián itself. Apart from a brief rural excursion, he barely ventures beyond the gorgeous La Concha bay and swanky Hotel Maria Cristina – and doesn’t even mention that the city – AKA Donostia – is Basque.

Still, by Allen’s lamentable recent standards, this fitfully entertaining film could be called adventurous, while the reliably cranky Shawn and a stately, vampish Gershon are clearly having a good time and letting us in on it. Allen may not have found any breakthrough inspiration, but Rifkin’s Festival at least has its riffs.