In all of his films up until this one, Woody Allen is out of this world. He never fits in yet part of him wants to. Despite recognizing the absurdity of the culture around him, Woody Allen gets pushed and pulled into all kinds of directions until he doesn’t know what to choose or where to go. That’s often why he gets so focused on who is right in front of him, because it simplifies what life is, to desire the person in front of you rather than to get even more lost in the arbitrary rules and etiquette of society.
In this case, Allen plays Boris in early 1800s Russia as the country is invaded by Napoleon. Still wearing his trademark glasses, Allen resists getting pushed into the frontlines of the war, even as everyone around him rushes forward recklessly and his mother nearly disowns him for cowardice.
Boris somehow survives the first battle in which almost his entire battalion is slaughtered. It makes no sense that Boris would be the one to survive, and that’s the point.
Away from the battlefield, Boris pines for Sonya (Diane Keaton), the love of his life. Sonya, however, is in love with Boris’ brother Ivan, but Ivan marries a different woman. The unrequited love chain stretches long and far.
When Boris is faced with an impending duel that he is sure to lose, Sonya accepts his marriage proposal only because she thinks it’s a nice thing to do for someone about to die. Instead, Boris survives the duel with one gunshot wound to each arm. Sonya takes no joy in marrying Boris, but Boris doesn’t seem to notice or mind.
The film then propels forward and explains that Sonya now loves Boris just like that. This takes place over a montage of them eating at a dinner table that is reminiscent of a similar montage in Citizen Kane (1941). In Citizen Kane, however, the montage shows Charles Foster Kane and his wife growing further apart rather than closer.
The second half of the film deals with the premise: Boris and Sonya try to assassinate Napoleon.
The central conflict of the story is really the differing views on love and death held by Boris in Sonya. Early in the film they debate what love is and how it should be felt. Sonya is a firm believer in true love, and that is why she resists Boris’ initial advances.
Later they have a very similarly-structured conversation about death. This comes up when Sonya tells Boris that he has to be the one to kill Napoleon. “Don’t pull the trigger, squeeze it,” she says.
Boris has trouble with the idea of murder, no matter who it is that needs to be killed. Sonya, on the other hand, thinks violence is okay if it is in service of mankind.
So Boris doesn’t shoot Sonya, but another man does. It turns out the man was an imposter, but Boris is killed nonetheless. He is taken before a shooting squad, yet due to a angelic vision the night before, Boris is convinced he’ll be saved. He’s not.
The film ends with Sonya discussing wheat.
“wheat. I’m dead, they’re talking about wheat… have I learned anything about life?” Boris wonders. He then continues to talk directly to the camera and states that “it’s important not to be bitter,” and that death is not an end. Then he dances away with death, draped in white linen.
This film, at least the end, sums up everything Allen’s movies have been about up until this point in time. He talks about how the world makes no sense, to love is to suffer and to not be bitter in death. He even admits to not knowing all the answers, and he’s very transparent that he’s still working through it. Allen has a similar attitude at the end of Annie Hall when he talks about seeing Annie again after their break up.
Throughout this story, characters say that life must go on, in some form or another. One example is when Sonya’s older husband dies. She and the several doctors deliberate, immediately after his death, about where to go to eat. When Boris is killed, Sonya discusses wheat.
Boris describes what death is like after he’s shot. Realistically no one knows, and yet he makes it seem like he does. Allen describes death with the same conviction he describes life. There are no answers and none of it adds up. This is all demonstrated in his movies. Earlier in the story he mentions that there is a man in his village named Old _______ and a man named Young _______. I don’t remember their Russian names, but let’s call them Old Bear and Young Bear. Well, Boris narrates to us that Young Bear’s son is older than Old Bear. It’s quickly played for a joke, like “oh isn’t that weird.” Then at the end, after dying, Boris references that as evidence that nothing makes sense.
In this film and previous ones, there are many moments that don’t make sense, just like that. They’re always played for laughs, and yet here is Woody Allen saying it’s a reflection of his world view as a whole. It’s quite illuminating, and at the end it only feels like Woody talking, not just Boris.
At the end of each of his movies, his characters die. Not always in the story, but because the film ends and thus ends the life of the character in our heads. Now, Woody Allen speaks to us from beyond the grave as each of those characters, not just as Boris. He’s Virgil, Fielding, the sperm, Miles and Boris. Maybe that’s a little too abstract or just not true, but it feels true. Woody is each of those characters and each of those characters is Woody, not just an aspect of Woody, but most of him.
Allen further elaborates that you’ll get lost in the rules when you look at both sides, as he does. He explains that the way he interprets the world can be a roadblock to enjoying it, and maybe that’s why so many of his characters are involved in huge plot movements to lead a South American rebellion, rob multiple banks and assassinate Napoleon. His characters are men of action but not necessarily by choice. Woody seems, like most writers, to be very internal. He deliberates, thinks and judges before acting. His characters are very similar and yet they still get pushed into these crazy and dangerous situations.
“At the height of my wellbeing I was seized by an urge to commit suicide,” Boris confesses and later he notices the figure in white and states, “look there’s death,” with the disposition of someone who saw their neighbor at the market.
It’s like this film is Allen getting it all out of his system, and his next film is Annie Hall so he’s able to move on to a different type of story. He basically realized or decided “this is what I’ve been working on through these first handful of films,” so he states it bluntly: love and death.
Up Next: Interiors (1978), Manhattan (1979), Stardust Memories (1980)