The Cannes film festival is well within Woody Allen’s comfort zone. This is the director’s 11th time at the festival, where – as with fellow auteurs Ken Loach and Paolo Sorrentino – he’s routinely received with yet greater adoration than on his home soil.
“It was a catastrophic mistake for me,” Allen said, speaking with what appeared to be a mix of irony and genuine anxiety. “I’m struggling with it at home. I never should have gotten into it. I thought it was going to be easy. You do a movie and it’s a big long thing; to do six half-hours you’d think would be a cinch. But it’s not: it’s very, very hard.”
Few details are available about the project, which is expected to become available in 2016. Allen went on to say that he was “floundering” with the medium, and that he expected the show to be “a cosmic embarrassment”.
In a separate interview published yesterday, the director admitted that he hadn’t heard of the online giant until relatively recently and was still unclear what a streaming service was.
“I don’t own a computer,” he told Deadline. “I’ve never seen anything online at all – nothing. I don’t own a word processor. I have none of that stuff. It’s not an act of rebellion. I’m just not a gadget person.”
Ebullient despite such anxiety, Allen, 79, was joined in Cannes by two of the film’s stars, Emma Stone and Parker Posey. Irrational Man, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a philosophy professor stricken with depression until he decides to try and commit the perfect murder, is Allen’s 50th film as director.
The director was reluctant to look back over his career, saying that he found little new could be learned about film-making after the first two or three attempts, and confirming that he never watches his back catalogue. “You can always see what you did wrong and why it’s terrible. I would shoot them all again if I could. I could improve them all.”
Irrational Man has met with a mixed reception at the festival, where it plays out of competition – as do all Allen’s films, at his request. The general consensus is that it’s an improvement on his most recent, Magic in the Moonlight (which also starred Emma Stone sparring with an older man), but not up to the standard of 2013’s Blue Jasmine, which won star Cate Blanchett a best actress Oscar.
Irrational Man’s treads familiar Allen territory, exploring the extent to which philosophical theory can act as a genuine comfort, as well as whether killing someone can ever be justified. Phoenix’s character finds he only enjoys life (and regains his sexual potency) once he rejects many of his own teachings and embarks on morally suspect – if well-intentioned – mission.
“People need something to believe in,” said Allen. “People make an irrational choice: they’ll think that if they live a very good life they’ll die and go to heaven. That’s no less crazy a thought than Joaquin’s character thinking that if he commits this act his life will suddenly turn around for the better.”
Allen related such consolation to Primo Levi’s observation that some of those who best coped with life in the concentration camps were communists. “They were able to better cope with the stresses because they had this economic system that they all believed in fantastically. One that eventually fell apart and did not work. But that did not matter – [as with] the Catholic church or any other religion. It does make your life better if there is something to believe in.”
For those without faith or such purpose, said Allen, there is no good answer to life’s grim reality, despite the best efforts of philosophers to find one.
“We’re all gonna wind up in a very bad position one day sooner or later. The only way to deal with it as an artist is to try to come up with something to explain to people why life is worth living. You can’t really do that without conning them because in the end it has no meaning. Everything you create or do is going to vanish. The sun is burning out and the universe will be gone. Everything that Shakespeare or Beethoven created will all be gone no matter how much we cherish it. So it’s very hard to sell people a bill of goods that there’s any good to this.”
The only solution, said Allen, was distraction. For him this meant either viewing films – “watching Fred Astaire for an hour and a half is a way of not thinking about my death, my decaying body and that I will be old one day in the very distant future” – or shooting them. “Movie-making is like giving inmates in an institution basket-weaving. It keeps you occupied.
“What distracts me is thinking: ‘Oh God, can I get Emma and Parker to do this scene right?’ Like it really means something. It doesn’t; it’s a trivial problem - I’ll solve it; if I don’t solve it it’ll be a bad movie but I won’t die.”The same applied to his stars, said Allen, who looked on with affection. Had they not been employed on his movie, “they’d be home or sitting on a beach thinking: ‘What is life about? I’m gonna get old and I’m gonna die and my loved ones are gonna die. Will I get ebola?”
As well as the Amazon show to occupy his thoughts, Allen also has a new movie in pre-production, starring Bruce Willis, Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. That film is scheduled to shoot in the autumn, suggesting that the extra TV work will not affect Allen’s one-film-per-year routine.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010