What's it like watching a movie in a meaningless void? That's both a question that might be posed within a Woody Allen movie, and one prompted by his new-ish film, Rifkin's Festival. It sneaks into limited and streaming release this Friday, a year-plus after its international release in fall 2020; in Manhattan, it is currently booked on one screen. This is a marked contrast to just four or five years ago, when a movie like Café Society would receive careful platform releases, and play on Allen's go-to New York screens for months.
The difference-maker, of course, is the renewed allegation that Allen sexually abused his daughter Dylan, who he adopted with Mia Farrow. The allegation was first made 30 years ago and, on a strictly legal basis, was resolved when charges against Allen were not pursued. But, of course, to hear from a victim directly, as the world did when Dylan Farrow broke her public silence on the matter in 2013, is quite different from reading secondhand accounts in the news, where the abuse allegation was initially tangled up with custody battles and Allen's creepy-but-not-illegal affair with his girlfriend's daughter. With the #MeToo movement giving national attention to many long-overlooked instances of sexual abuse, questions about Allen's past lingered, rather than dissipating as they had in the past.
A heavier fog of uncertainty now hangs over Allen's personal life, making the appreciation of his prolific work a complicated proposition. Rifkin's Festival inadvertently (or perhaps subconsciously?) uncomplicates matters simply by slumping through 89 minutes of Allen's worst instincts. Even those — like me — with a higher-than-average tolerance may cringe at this supposedly light and philosophical comedy.
For most of his career, even subpar Allen movies had some value. Their regular appearance on the release calendar, and their similarly metronomic repetition of his favorite themes and concerns, was part of their appeal, at least for fans. His previous film, 2019's A Rainy Day in New York, received its own delayed and obscured U.S. release as Rifkin started to make its way around Europe, and it wasn't worth much attention, choppier and more out of touch than even his creakier late-period films. But even in this dire situation, fundamentals remained. Some of the laugh lines landed. Some of the performances, especially Selena Gomez as a tart-tongued foil to Timothée Chalamet's fussy old soul, were quite good. Compared to that flimsy trifle, Rifkin's Festival feels especially hollowed out.
The premise offers lighthearted retrospective: Mort Rifkin (Wallace Shawn), a professorial crank getting on in years as he attempts to write a "masterpiece" of a novel, accompanies his publicist wife Sue (Gina Gershon) to the San Sebastian Film Festival, where her client has a new project premiering. Adrift as Sue attends to her various responsibilities, Rifkin waxes nostalgic about the old movies he loves, imagining black-and-white scenes that mix his life with the work of filmmaking greats like Welles, Bergman, Fellini, Buñuel, and so on.
These sequences return ex-comedian Allen to the realm of outright parody for the first time in years, and they have their moments, like the abject silliness of Richard Kind, playing Rifkin's father in a Citizen Kane-style flashback that refers to "Rose Budnick" instead of Rosebud. More often, though, these scenes find Allen missing easy layups, like a riff on the playing-chess-with-death scene from The Seventh Seal. It features no less than Christoph Waltz as Death, and breezes by with a few faint chuckles. The non-parody bits are worse, mostly consisting of Wallace Shawn slinking around San Sebastian, bumping into featureless characters who deliver some manner of exposition before shuffling on their way. Allen has been working with masterful Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro for his last bunch of movies, and here their collaboration assumes its final form: beautiful lighting of aimless, indifferently composed scenes.
Allen used to have his pick of big-name avatars. Understandably, far fewer actors seem interested in impersonating Allen these days. That leaves Shawn playing Rifkin with an overemphatic, one-note delivery. Failing to land the wisecracks, he hectors everyone about the European masters as the characters do their best to ignore him. Even his sort-of love object, a local doctor (Elena Anaya) who robotically echoes his Cinema History 101 taste, doesn't ever occupy any real space with Rifkin, let alone form a meaningful bond with him. Rifkin and his movie both seem ready to crumble to dust at the merest touch.
The ghostly effect may be intentional: Rifkin appears lost in a world that is rapidly passing him by — hence Allen's amusingly incoherent broadsides at socially conscious American indie filmmaking. Yet it's hard to extract much resonance when the movie as a whole feels spectral and echoey, too — dreamlike in the most pedestrian way possible. Its gentle retrospective qualities are shockingly unflattering; the movie unintentionally simulates the experience of revisiting Allen's work and finding it shallow, obvious, self-obsessed, and unfunny. The truth about Allen's films is trickier and more elusive than that, which makes Rifkin's Festival a particularly off-putting self-distortion.
Factor in his reputation of late, and this would feel like a logical stopping point for Allen. It will almost certainly not be. (Supposedly he's prepping another drama in the vein of Match Point, to be financed by the usual European concerns.) Yet in a career full of movies that, for better or for worse, could have served as unofficial swan songs, Rifkin's Festival functions differently — less an open ending than an eternal purgatory, where Allen makes films he can't appear in, for a skeleton-crew audience, unable to retire. All that's left is to restate his thoughts on life, which Rifkin's Festival itself tacitly exemplifies all too well: With too few highlights and little discernible point, it feels over almost as soon as it begins.