Woody Allen takes new approach, with underwhelming results, in ‘Coup de Chance’

by STEPHEN WHITTY
coup de chance review

Niels Schneider and Lou de Laȃge co-star in “Coup de Chance.”

Woody Allen has a new film coming out, “Coup de Chance,” in which one of the main characters is a rich married man haunted by an old scandal — a horrible crime he may have committed, and whose public details remain both half-remembered and hotly debated.

Which leaves me with two things of which I am relatively sure.

One is that, if you asked him, Allen would insist, unconvincingly, that this is simply a character in a work of fiction and in no way inspired by his own controversial past.

And two, that a number of people stopped reading this story after “Woody Allen has a new film coming out.”

But if you’re still reading, let’s face that elephant in the room straight off. I don’t know if Allen abused his 7-year-old daughter more than 30 years ago, and neither do you. (Two investigations found no evidence; the young woman and her mother, Mia Farrow, still insist it happened.) I do know, however, that Allen has long had creepy relationships with barely legal women, both on film (e.g., “Manhattan”) and in real life (e.g., his affair with, and then marriage to, Farrow’s adult daughter, Soon-Yi).

For decades after the scandal, Allen’s career continued unscathed. But then the #MeToo movement brought new attention to stories of predatory males. Suddenly old colleagues and collaborators began to shun him.

Allen’s films struggled to find audiences. However, “Coup de Chance,” his first movie in three years, may draw more attention when it opens on April 5 — and not just for the scandal surrounding that one character. Even for loyal followers used to Allen’s occasional artistic swerves, it’s a startling change.

That’s because, after years of admiring foreign films, Allen has actually made one. Not only was this movie shot in France, it’s almost completely, truly French, beginning with the cast and dialogue. There are English subtitles throughout, but miss the opening credits and you’ll think you’re watching some small, indie import. Which, to all intents and purposes, you are.

Why Allen — whose greatest strength has always been his writing — would want to turn his back on his native tongue is puzzling. Perhaps it’s because he thinks there is something in a story about casual, adulterous afternoons that makes it intrinsically Parisian. Certainly he embraces those clichés — the once-bohemian heroine shares a last name with the leading lady of “Jules et Jim” while her lover, a writer, lives in a garret. (Yes, “La Bohème” is name-dropped.)

Yet, like too many of Allen’s films over the last few decades, there is little in this film beyond the idea for a film.

Lou de Laȃge in “Coup de Chance.”

The story begins with a chance meeting on a busy street between Fanny (played by Lou de Laȃge) and Alain (Niels Schneider). They haven’t seen each other since school. Now, a decade later, he is a recently divorced novelist. She is the bored trophy wife of that somewhat shady financier, who is rich and attentive but slightly dull.

Things progress quickly after that initial encounter. Fanny starts meeting Alain for long lunches, he buys her books of poetry and … well, pretty soon they’re in his charming attic apartment making with the ooh-la-la. It’s idyllic, in an old-fashioned French movie kind of way, although Fanny worries a bit about betraying her bland but otherwise maritally blameless husband.

Considering that the last person who crossed him, a contentious business partner, simply disappeared one day, she may have good reason to worry.

De Laȃge has a certain offhandedly chic charm, and Allen’s favorite recent cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, delivers some lovely, softly lit boudoir shots. But for a story about an amour fou there’s not much mad passion here. Where is the overpowering lust and self-destructive risk-taking that other, bolder movies about adultery — such as Adrian Lyne’s “Unfaithful” — tapped into? It’s as if Allen confuses continental sophistication with plain boredom.

Most of the rest of the film is equally bloodless — perfectly competent yet rather rote. Several party scenes — with a small circle of overprivileged people fatuously conversing over cocktails — feel like leftovers from earlier, better Allen movies. The classic jazz soundtrack doesn’t seem thought through. (Nat Adderley’s version of “Cantaloupe Island,” reprised several times here, is a great piece, but far too carefree for this story; rather than cooly ironic, it merely feels out of place.)

Valérie Lemercier in “Coup de Chance.”

Things pick up a little more than halfway through the film when Fanny’s mother, played by Valérie Lemercier, arrives. When her daughter confesses not only that she has been having an affair, but that her lover seems to have abruptly left town, the older lady — a fan of Georges Simenon thrillers — decides to do some investigating. It even briefly seems possible the film may turn into a dark comedy, like Allen’s last, long-ago collaboration with Diane Keaton, “Manhattan Murder Mystery.”

But it doesn’t. The mother’s sleuthing is perfunctory, resulting only in a small amount of suspense and no humor at all. Things wrap up quickly and a little too neatly, with a mordant bit of deus ex machina that, while evoking the kind of happenstance occurrence that began the movie — the film’s title is French for “stroke of luck” — feels pat. Allen’s philosophizing could be heavy-handed in the past, but this cop-out conclusion isn’t much more than a Gallic shrug.

It’s a pretty small payoff after 106 minutes.

But then Allen’s return on his loyal audience’s investment had been fading for quite a while. Although he has always been a little too prolific, fans used to be able to count on two or three great films before a poor one arrived; lately, not only has the ratio reversed, but what were once great films have become merely good. The last work of any note was “Wonder Wheel,” in 2017, and that succeeded because of Kate Winslet’s powerhouse performance, not its derivative story. (Allen used to be able to write truly wonderful parts for women.)

Slicky produced and smoothly performed, this new film isn’t an embarrassment. That Allen was able to pull off its production at all — the man is 88, as well as persona non grata in much of the filmmaking community — may even be counted as a personal achievement. But it’s no artistic triumph, or likely — after a week’s run at The Quad in Manhattan, it’s off to video-on-demand — to mark any sort of commercial breakthrough. And if that dashes any hopes Allen had of it being his own coup de chance … ah, well, c’est la vie.

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