The skies were blue over Cannes on Friday, beautiful people strolled the streets and the best films in the world were all around. Woody Allen, however, was in a pretty dark mood.
“We’re all going to end up in a very bad position one day. The same position but a bad one,” he said, speaking to reporters in a room toward the back of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palais complex.
“The only thing you can do as an artist is come up with a way to explain to people why life has some meaning. And you can’t do that without conning them. Because in the end it has no meaning. Everything you create will vanish and the earth will vanish and the sun is vanishing .... it will all be gone one day no matter how much we cherish it.”
Allen was giving a press conference after the first screening of his new movie “Irrational Man,” which played to journalists Friday ahead of it world premiere Friday night.
FULL COVERAGE: Cannes 2015
It was said by his reps to be Allen’s only Croisette appearance, so perhaps the comments -- made in response to a straightforward question about his approach -- was the best chance to work out the existentialism. Or maybe it was the movie itself that had him so glum. A comedy of the most jet-black sort, “Irrational Man” centers on a philosophy professor named Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who spends his days swimming in a sea of enervated despair. Or would swim, if he could find any joy in this world.
Early on, Abe meets, and is showered with the affections of, an attractive student (Emma Stone). But it’s still not enough to shake him from his doldrums. It actually takes committing a serious crime to do that. Said crime is a rational premeditated act -- so rational that Lucas is able to find both justification and meaning in it.
The enterprise has shades of “Match Point” and “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” with a (slightly) lighter tone than the former and less sleuthing than the latter. The film’s main thrust, though, might be as an assault on the search for meaning, and how the quest itself can lead to some unfortunate consequences.
"[Religious people] think if they live a good life they’ll live on in heaven,” Allen said at the press conference. In his mind, he said, that’s a fallacy that equates to a secular person like Phoenix’s character “thinking he’ll commit this act and make his life better.”
For those of us raised on movies like his genre parodies (“Bananas,” “Sleeper”) or the intellectual romantic comedies for which he’s most famous, this turn to the lugubrious can seem unexpected, and perhaps a function of age. But Allen deflected the idea he’s become more morose in his filmmaking preoccupations lately. “I was ponderously serious at a young age,” he said. “I just had to be a comic filmmaker because that’s where my gifts were and no one would give me any money to make a serious movie.”
Attempts to shake things up creatively have also been for naught. You’d think a commitment to make an Amazon show, as Allen recently made, might snap him from his mood. But it turns out that’s only caused more stress.
“It was a catastrophic mistake,” he said, not seeming to be joking. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m floundering. I expect this to be a cosmic embarrassment.” Though Allen pretty much averages a movie each year even at 79, the idea of doing six half-hours, with quick endings and restarts, has proved foreign territory for him.
Less foreign is a spring-summer breakout -- he’s had his share of late. And though “Irrational Man,” which arrives in theaters in July, doesn’t have the travels-through-history appeal of “Midnight in Paris" or the eye-opening central performance of “Blue Jasmine,” it does offer popular actors in some compelling situations, under a just-thick-enough layer of froth.
That doesn’t mean its director is likely to turn sunny anytime soon.
“The only thing you can do in life is distract yourself so you have moments that are not reality,” he said. “I go to a movie and watch Fred Astaire dance so I’m not thinking about death and the decaying of my body. And then you come out and the problems hit you in the face."
He continued, “What distracts me is I try to get [actors] to do a scene right...I’ll solve [an acting problem]. If I don’t solve it it will be a bad movie but i won’t die. Filmmaking is to distract me. It’s like how they give the inmates basket weaving.”