A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy [DVD]
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A Woody Allen turn-of-the-century tale of love and lust. Three couples spend a 'quiet' weekend together to celebrate one of their weddings. Inventor Andrew (Woody Allen) and Adrian are the hosts, while his cousin Dr Leopold has arrived to marry his fiancée Ariel (Mia Farrow). However, Andrew begins to lust after Ariel, as does Dr Maxwell Jordan (Tony Roberts), who has brought along his nurse, Dulcy. There follows a multitude of seductions and sexual misadventures with the bride and groom saying 'I do' to everyone but each other.
Woody Allen's 1982 homage to Bergman and Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy is a delight from start to finish and must rate as one of his most joyous films. The period setting--Edwardian up state New York--gives the whole thing a misty, elegiac quality.
Part Midsummer Night's Dream (the magic supplied by visions through a spirit glass) and part Smiles of a Summer Night (Bergman's source material provides the basic plot and ensuing couplings), it's a gentle satire on male sexuality and frustration. Allen handles the angst with the lightest of touches. He plays a Wall Street broker who spends his holidays inventing flying machines (they work, with telling consequences). He and his wife (Mary Steenburgen) are increasingly depressed by their ailing sex life. Cue the arrival of weekend guests: crusty academic (Jose Ferrer) and beautiful blue-stocking fiancée previously in love with Allen (Mia Farrow, of course); and insatiable doctor (Tony Roberts) with his latest squeeze, a nurse (the excellent Julie Hagerty). Eighty minutes of unravelling, discovery and renewal follow, accompanied by a Mendelssohn sound track. This is one of Allen's most treasurable pictures.
On the DVD: A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy is presented in widescreen that recaptures the pleasure which greeted the setting of this most pastoral of Allen's films on its first release; it really does glow with summery light. The standard stereo soundtrack is perfectly acceptable. Extras include the original theatrical trailer and multiple language soundtracks.--Piers Ford
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The basic story is simple. Leopold (Jose Ferrer-a wonderful performance), a pompous philosophy professor from middle Europe visits Andrew's (Allen) and his wife's house for the last day of his bacherlorhood with his attractive and very much younger wife-to-be Ariel (Mia Farrow). Andrew's friend, the lascivious doctor Maxwell (Tony Roberts) joins them with his latest aquisition Dulcy (Julie Hagerty). None of these relationships is working; there is a great deal of soul searching, arguing, seductions...the normal Allen fayre. At first this seems quite bizarre, as we are so used to seeing this played out against a New York background; it seems alien in this lush rural setting. Allen is, mysteriously, both a Wall Street banker and an eccentric inventor (somewhat like Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). His inventions include an early flying machine which plays its part in one attempted seduction. All this is enough to unsettle the viewer as you're not quite sure what genre this is-comedy, romance,fantasy, drama.
But if you stay with the film long enough, the mind spends less time juggling with the surface matter and starts to be seduced by the atmosphere. There is at the heart of this film the issue of life being what we make of it; the cold professor gradually realises that there may be more to life than what science alone can explain.
The countryside is beautifully shot by cinematographer Gordon Willis (responsible for Allen's Manhattan..) and the magical score using Mendelssohn's music adds to the enchanted feeling of this movie. The tale ends magically, and quite suddenly, and then you realise you want to see it again; not a masterpiece but an enjoyable little gem.
The transfer to DVD is fair-not as sharp as some, and my copy had some graininess to it. The sound is basic mono. (For goodness sake don't let the disc continue after the final credits as you will then be bombarded with the copyright warning in umpteen languages which you can't stop. Hit the stop button as soon as you see 'An Orion Pictures release').
For some of us this film has a special place in Allen's output, and is an essential purchase. But given the basic nature of the disc-there's just a trailer as an extra feature-this disc is overpriced. This film is twenty years old. MGM, put it out at under a tenner please.
But the film remains a little gem.
Allen's setting of the film in the early 20th century allows viewers to suspend their collective disbelief. The guests, who arrive for their country weekend in jaunty roadsters, are clad in head-to-toe dusters; the women with their long wasp-waisted skirts and lacy blouses look as if they have stepped out of a Gibson Girl calendar. Adrian's repression, in fact, is emphasised by her tightly-strung corset, and the trouble in her marriage to Andrew is made evident by the camera's focus not on husband and wife but on their mirrored image on the wall of their empty bedroom, with its striped wallpaper and old-fashioned framed sentimental prints of blissful couples.
Andrew and Adrian's white wooden Victorian gingerbread house is set in a New York meadow surrounded by lush woodlands in which the light dances as it filters through the leaves, constantly altering our perspective. Andrew and his guests participate in badminton and archery contests; the Professor discovers that there is more to Dulcie than meets the eye over a leisurely game of chess; Adrian learns (surreptitiously) that there has been far more to Andrew's life than met her eye from Ariel, as the two women rock back and forth on a white face-to-face garden swing. The Professor entertains the company with one-too-many Schubert lieder, accompanied by Adrian on an old rosewood upright piano, illuminated by the glimmering light of glass-chimneyed oil lamps. A soft-focused ambience of nostalgia--like peering into a stereoscope or at an old picture album--seduces the viewer into accepting the delightful absurdities of the scenario.
Allen uses Shakespeare's comedy as a point of departure. For example, the Shakespearean quotation, with which I have entitled my review, could well represent the state of Andrew and Adrian's marriage, which has been reduced to one of enforced chastity. As in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "MSNSC" begins with an impending wedding, that of the elderly pontificating Professor and Ariel. Like Shakespeare's comedy, Allen's pastiche focuses on benighted lovers chasing each other to no avail through the woods, and just as Shakespeare's enchanted woodlands held room for low comedy with lots of belly laughs, so do Allen's. One could even envision Andrew with his preposterous flying machines and spirit lantern as a wacky Oberon (or, since he has borrowed Ariel's name from "The Tempest," an equally wacky Prospero). By combining the elements of Shakespeare's comedy--the rushing brook, the creatures of the forest, the shadows, the moon slipping in and out of wispy clouds (all captured by splendid cinematography)--with Mendelssohn's magnificent music, not only "A Midsummer Night's Dream" but also his sublime violin and piano concertos, Allen has conjured up cinematic magic that keeps the viewer suspended between laughter at the antics of his mortal fools and tears at his spirits and shadows, which, by no means, offend.
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