From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:
‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’
Reviewed by Santiago Ramos
This year’s Woody Allen opus begins with the story of Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), a wealthy septuagenarian lawyer living in London who becomes gripped by the fear of his own mortality and, after the brief paralysis that such gripping fear brings, decides to do something about it. He divorces his longtime wife, Helena (Gemma Jones) and pursues younger women, until he finds a call girl named Charmaine (Lucy Punch), who he can persuade, after buying several dozen hours of her service, to marry him. A new life.
Alfie and Helena have one daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), an unhappy former art student and reluctant career woman. She is married to an American writer, Roy (Josh Brolin), a sort of emasculated Hemingway who can’t write a good second novel—he is currently writing his fourth as the movie begins. Roy does not want to have a baby with Sally until his literary career has been cemented into excellence. But Sally wants a family.
Sally begins to work—reluctantly, instead of making a family—as an assistant to an art dealer, Greg (Antonio Banderas), who plays the newly standardized Woody Allen role of “Hispanic sophisticate” perfected by Javier Bardem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and to whom Sally becomes instantly attracted. Roy, on the other hand, is drawn by a woman wearing a red dress that he sees every day from his bedroom window across the short distance to the next apartment building, where she lives and plays guitar by her window. Sometimes she does more than play guitar, and Roy becomes a true voyeur.
Sally and Roy are only the second sundered marital union in this film. There are more. But Woody Allen is not interested in satirizing the selfishness and shortcomings of the old and young. That we are moral failures is merely a premise to the film. The other premise is supplied by MacBeth, and quoted at the beginning of the film: “Life is a tale told by an idiot / full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” The film is about measuring the effectiveness of our responses to these premises. “Sometimes the illusions are better than the medicine,” is a line that is repeated in the film. It refers to two possible responses.
The first is Helena’s, who dives into illusions after a botched attempt at suicide. She starts frequenting a psychic, who assures Helena that she is about to enter “into a period of great fulfillment.” Even if her husband has decided to marry a blonde half his age, Helena needn’t worry; she too will soon meet a handsome new love—or, as Roy sarcastically puts it, “a tall, dark, stranger.” Sally supports her mother’s visits to the psychic precisely because “the illusions are better than the medicine,” but Roy thinks that the psychic is merely conning Helena out of a lot of money.
Everyone else, however, tries different types of “medicine,” that is to say, a rearrangement of their living situation through force of different types—persuasion, seduction, coercion. Divorce is the first move for all of them. Sally becomes emotionally involved with Greg, though with mixed results. Roy finds his way into the apartment of the girl in the red dress, whose name turns out to be Dia, and begins an affair with her.
In one of the best scenes of the film, Roy stands alone in Dia’s bedroom, looks outside her window and back into the window of his old apartment, and finds Sally in their old bedroom, more attractive than he had found her in years. There will always be another window, and the grass is always greener… The medicine is not enough because it cannot guarantee something completely new and free and good.
The “completely new,” or “the new which stays new” (to steal from Ezra Pound), is one way to describe what Woody Allen makes his characters desire. Another way to describe it would be: “something that doesn’t go away,” something that lasts. Allen’s worldview is comprehensively tragic: the new and lasting—the eternal—does not exist. And he has become an expert at crafting stories about people living this very drama of desire gone unmet. This film is unique, however, because one character’s desire is met.
Helena’s superstition, which is the symbol for religion in the universe of the film, is not, in the end, as ridiculous as all of the film’s characters make it out to be. It is not “effective” merely because it provides a consolation and an anesthetic with which Helena can live her remaining, painful days. It actually works. Her fulfillment does come. No doubt Woody Allen is trying to be ironic—“See how beautiful and ironic life is?” Antonio Banderas asks Sally. There is something funny about a group of intelligent people who are unhappy, being laughed at by a superstitious old woman who is happy. Nevertheless, he places religion before a reasonable standard: Have you found true fulfillment? Does the tall, dark, stranger truly exist? Have you seen him?
Among the film’s restless characters, only Helena stays put long enough to ask herself those questions. Among filmmakers, Woody Alone stands out as a restless (and repetitive) asker of the same.
Santiago Ramos has written for First Things, Commonweal, Image Journal, Traces, and the Kansas City weekly, The Pitch. He is currently pursuing graduate studies in Boston College.