Woody Allen's Rifkin's Festival is a tired and uninspired rehash of the same mix of characters, plot lines, and comical neuroses that Allen has been mining for decades. There is nothing wrong with an artist returning again and again to their most cherished themes and ideas, but Allen's output in recent years has become so repetitive and unimaginative that it verges on tedium. There was a time when I was impressed that Allen was able to write and direct a new film virtually every year. And, while there was some unevenness, even his lesser efforts were interesting and worthwhile, and once or twice a decade he would produce something genuinely great. However, at this point it seems that Allen's creative reserves have run dry, and the consistency of his output is less impressive than it is compulsive, as if he simply has to churn out a new film every year even if he has nothing new or interesting to say. As a musician, Allen should know that you can't just keep hitting the same note over and over and expect people to keep listening.
Rifkin's Festival is the epitome of this unfortunate downward spiral. The film unfolds during the San Sebastian Film Festival, where we follow Mort Rifkin (Wallace Shawn), a high-strung, dissatisfied film professor-another entry in Allen's long line of frustrated, out-of-place intellectuals-who is attending the festival because his wife, Sue (Gina Gershon), is a publicist representing a hot new director named Philippe (Louis Garrel). Mort is, of course, jealous of Philippe, who he naturally has to write off as pompous and venal, although Mort is himself so insufferable a character that it is difficult to stomach his constant kvetching, even if it is delivered with Wallace Shawn's trademark quirk. Mort gets distracted by Dr. Joanna Rojas (Elena Anaya), an unhappily married physician who sees him for chest pains. Mort is smitten with the (much younger) doctor, which we can believe, but what is less convincing is why she would have any interest in him.
But, no matter; Rifkin's Festival is not so much about actual human behavior as it is about Allen's own dramatic compulsions and enduring adoration of mid-20th-century European art cinema. Mort proves his cinematic bona fides by constantly referencing the high points of the Janus Films catalog, which Allen then uses as an excuse to recreate scenes from his favorite European masterworks, including Fellini's 8 (1963), Godard's Breathless (1960), and Bergman's Persona (1966) and The Seventh Seal (1957). Allen is so enmeshed in his own world that he doesn't recognize how artificial it all feels-a romantic comedy designed primarily as a vehicle for Allen's self-absorbed commentary on the shallowness of contemporary cinema (the irony being, of course, that Rifkin's Festival is itself painfully shallow, even if it is beautifully shot by the great Vittorio Storaro).
What is truly sad about the film, though, is that is suggests a complete absence of real love or even its possibility. None of the characters love anyone, or are in love with anyone, or seem to have ever loved anyone (it is possible that they are not even capable of loving anything other than the sound of their own voices). In Allen's earlier, better films, there was a genuine sense of romance and affection and connection beyond just lust and fascination; Allen's Alvy Singer genuinely loved and cared for Annie Hall, which is what made their eventual parting in Annie Hall (1977) so bittersweet. In Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Cliff's genuine yearning for Halley made her eventual capitulation to the advances of Lester, the smarmy movie producer, all the more tragic. In Rifkin's Festival, the characters are incapable of feelings of depth, which is why the dialogue plays as little more than pedantic speeches and tired bromides. We learn a lot about the great movies that Allen cherishes, but nothing about his characters other than the petty depths of their neurotic navel-gazing.
Copyright 2022 James Kendrick
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All images copyright The Mediapro Studio, Gravier Productions, and Wildside
Overall Rating: (1.5)
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