In A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Woody Allen loosely examines a couple ideas: lust vs. love and spirituality vs. practicality.
The story involves three couples: Andrew/Adrian, Maxwell/Dulcy and Leopold/Ariel.
Andrew, an inventor, once knew Ariel, and when she tells him she might’ve loved him once, he becomes completely enamored with her though he won’t admit it. Part of this, or maybe all of it, is because Andrew and his wife Adrian have a struggling sex life. In response to their poor sex life, Andrew has focused on his inventions which include a “spirit box” that will access the past and future in ghostly apparitions.
Maxwell is a doctor, Andrew’s best friend and a serial womanizer. Dulcy is a nurse he works with and nothing more to him.
Leopold is an aging philosopher and teacher. He is Adrian’s cousin and set to marry Ariel.
The conflict arises from Maxwell’s lust for Ariel, Andrew’s infatuation with Ariel and the conflict between Maxwell and Leopold, which I think is the most interesting aspect of the film.
Leopold believes only in experience. He thinks there is nothing beyond what we perceive directly. Maxwell agrees with Andrew that there is an unseen world. Based on their professions and behavior, you might expect them to believe the opposite. Maxwell is a doctor and a man of science and yet he’s open to there being more to life than what’s right in front of you. Maybe being a dreamer and a womanizer go hand in hand.
Leopold, despite preferring to think rather than do, believes only in what’s in front of him. He prefers chess while Maxwell participates in archery, which Leopold labels as primitive. Leopold would get along well with the intellectual crowd in Manhattan (1979).
So the characters bicker and flirt and discuss the real vs. unseen world. Every couple begins to lie to each other as Maxwell and Ariel make tentative plans in the woods while Leopold and Dulcy do the same.
Everything culminates when Andrew follows Maxwell out to the woods for a nighttime encounter with Ariel. In a surprisingly passive confrontation, Ariel says she loves Andrew and Maxwell must walk away sadly, admitting that it’s better than her marrying Leopold.
Leopold sees Andrew and Ariel kissing through Andrew’s spirit box, and he decides to grab the bow and arrow and hunt Andrew. Instead he hits Maxwell and realizes he has a thirst for blood and his more primitive urges. He then rips the clothing off of Dulcy and makes love to her before dying with a smile on his face. So his entire worldview shifts right before he dies.
In the meantime, Andrew learns from a supposedly dying Maxwell that Maxwell slept with Adrian. After confronting Adrian, a weight is lifted and their sex life returns to normal.
Ariel realizes, after a poor sexual encounter with Andrew, that she does not love him. She and Maxwell get together. They return home in time to watch the orb of Leopold’s spirit tell them there is indeed an unseen world that he is now a part of.
Okay, so that’s the story. It’s a nice simple comedy that was Woody Allen apparently wrote in only two weeks so I hesitate to delve too deeply into the psychology or message of the film… but here goes.
“Can there be love without sex?” “Sex alleviates tension and love causes it.”
This is the answer Andrew provides during a group dinner, and it’s central to the story. Ariel liked Andrew because she thought he loved her more than he lusted after her. In reality he only lusts after her, and this is proven when he finally sleeps with his wife and alleviates the tension and feelings he felt towards Ariel.
The reason Ariel was set to marry Leopold was because she knew he did not lust after her. She knew there was a reason other than sex, and she relished it. Maxwell, on the other hand, only lusts after her, and this is why she resists him for so long.
Andrew just wants to have sex, whether he admits it or not.
Maxwell seems to grow as a character because he embraces love rather than lust. Who knows if it’s permanent or temporary, but it’s a start.
Allen does a good job writing characters who have a clear point of view. This film is similar in that way to Interiors, but of course the tone is quite different. In both films he puts characters in what feels like a confined space and lets their world views and beliefs clash into each other.
In Interiors the confined space was the family dynamic. They could never drift too far away because they were family. In Midsummer, the confined space is the summer house. They’re isolated from the rest of the world and must deal with these problems like two boxers in a ring, only there are six of them instead of two.
The fact that Leopold’s character grows from a thinker and philosopher into a primal being (grows or devolves depending on how you see it) could be reflective of the way Allen wants to live. This isn’t just speculation, it’s speculative speculation. I have no idea, clearly. But Manhattan features the bubble inside which live the intellectuals. Here they have left the city (Andrew mentions that he works on Wall Street), and we see how their beliefs play out in nature. Then again they’re still in their own little social bubble in which they create their neurotic love problems like Isaac says in Manhattan. So maybe it’s the same.
In a lot of Woody Allen’s films there is a balance between the neurotic, thinking type (all of Allen’s roles) and the person who takes action. In many of his films, particularly his earlier comedies, Allen plays both roles. He is a character who thinks out loud and then takes action whether by choice or because he’s forced to. In his more recent films (at the time of Midsummer‘s release) he is a thinker and lest of a doer. In Annie Hall and Manhattan, he continues to think out loud and do less. These films are also more grounded in reality suggesting that realistically you can only be one of the two. His earlier films were unrestrained by reality and thus Allen could be both. He could be a bank robber and a thinker. He could be an agent in a revolution (twice) and still a thinker, etc.
In my speculative speculation, I take this to mean that Allen has some desire to be a man of action and yet he knows he’s a thinker, a ponderer, a philosopher, a writer. In this film he’s showing both types, but he also breaks down the barrier between the two roles as Leopold goes from the philosopher to the hunter and love maker and finally glowing orb in the night sky.
It’s like that movie Identity with John Cusack in which (spoiler alert) all the characters are personalities of the same person, and they fight amongst each other until one wins out, and that’s who John Cusack becomes, the winning personality (though he hardly has what you would call a “winning” personality, it’s more of a murderous personality but then you get into the weeds of what is a murderous personality? Can a personality be murderous? I tend to think a personality would be something else that makes the person murderous, like they have a jealous personality or a whatever personality that clashes with certain circumstances or other factors that result in murder. But maybe someone would say about the Zodiac that he (maybe she?) had a murderous personality. Or, hell, maybe someone would say the Zodiac had a winning personality. I don’t know).
So maybe that’s what this film is, two types of personalities clashing, and Woody is trying to see how it would go down. Can Ariel love both? Or maybe the one she chooses is the one he believes is greater. She chooses Maxwell and the ones who do, I suppose. But Leopold’s death is arguably the greatest death in any of Allen’s films. In the film Leopold’s voice radiates from the spirit box and tells them that the woods are full of small little orbs of other people who died in the heat of lovemaking. So he gets to live on precisely because of how he died.
So everyone gets a happy ending, and maybe there’s nothing to learn other than Woody Allen is a good writer who can write a nice summer romantic comedy in two weeks.
Analyzing a film like this makes me feel like I’m in a class and we’re told to pick a piece of literature to write a report on. People in the class pick War and Peace or The Iliad or The Sun Also Rises or even Harry Potter and I picked a hamburger recipe I found online.
Final note – this is the first Woody Allen film with Mia Farrow whom he had a relationship with for a while. It continues the trend of him putting women he’s dated in his films, including Louise Lasser and Diane Keaton. I may have touched on this earlier but I forget, and I’m too lazy right now to check: forget the “Bond Girl,” the more interesting character type is the “Woody Allen girl.” The women he dates are the women he desires within his film and yet sometimes he realizes he’s better off without her, such as Mia Farrow’s character here and Diane Keaton’s character in Manhattan. That’s all I guess.
Up Next: Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)