"If you lusted after me so, why weren't you also in love with me? Can the two feelings really be separate?"—Ariel (Mia Farrow)
Written at the same time as the ambitious and complex Zelig, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy is the flip side of everything Woody Allen: pastoral instead of urbane, hasty instead of meticulous, classical instead of jazz.
Facts of the Case
Are we in store for a wedding? We begin with Mendelssohn's wedding processional. Ah, desire. If A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy can be spotted at all as a Woody Allen film, it is in the obsession with…well, obsession. But Dr. Leopold (Jose Ferrer) does not believe in such silliness: he is a pure empiricist, preferring "fixed substances" to metaphysics and superstition. A pompous pedant right out of a Molière play, Leopold is ripe for a lesson.
And so we gather the players together: Andrew (Woody Allen) is the wacky inventor who jettisoned Wall Street by pitching himself headlong into metaphysical gadgetry, Maxwell (Tony Roberts) is a doctor who regularly sleeps with his patients. But when all these silly men meet in Andrew's home by the river, with their respective women (Mia Farrow as Leopold's fiancé Ariel, Julie Hagerty as Maxwell's assistant Dulcy, and Mary Steenburgen as Andrew's wife Adrian), desire turns out to be the most magical elixir of all.
A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy can only be taken as farce. Woody borrows from Shakespearean comedy (less the obvious Midsummer Night's Dream than Much Ado About Nothing) and Molière, or even Oscar Wilde. This is deliberate caricature, played over the top by the entire cast—except Mary Steenburgen, who seems a bit too relaxed compared to the fever pitch of the others. Perhaps the signs that this movie is some sort of dream are altogether too conspicuous: all three women look like willowy sisters, with their thin faces and reedy voices. Variations on a theme. Dulcy is raw sexuality; Adrian naïve and nervous; Ariel independent. Once, long ago, Ariel and Adrian had an affair in which she slept with everybody but him, and now she is planning to marry Leopold out of desperation over her age. The line between love and lust, the boundary of desire, blurs.
And the men? Each is part of a whole. Leopold is the superego, controlling and repressed, the side of Woody that favors existentialism over spirituality (a theme more conspicuously explored in his brilliant Crimes And Misdemeanors): ultimately he will be paired with Dulcy, whose "raw energy" balances him—then he will die and become pure spirit, finding his passionate side in the magical forest. After all, this must have a happy ending in which love triumphs, right?
Maxwell is the id, desire without limits, paired up ultimately with Ariel as she releases the desire that she could not feel with Andrew. And Andrew—Woody himself—is the ego, caught between rationality and lust, tempted and tormented, but in the end, left pretty much back where he started, only with his relationship to Adrian strengthened and made more passionate.
All of this is playful and hurried, jumping from one wacky misunderstanding to the next, as is characteristic of farce, even down to the awkward closure that renders everyone happy and fulfilled. But even if the photography (by the legendary Gordon Willis, using his trademark shadowing effects) has a soft and comfortable quality to it, punctuated by warm glows, the timing of everything seems a little bit off. This terrain does not seem particularly conducive to Woody's usual obsessions. Turn of the century Americana, the pastoral environment: the cast feels out of place here. The jokes are stilted, as if we are watching a dress rehearsal while everyone gets a better handle on their characters. Even the mannered prettiness of Mendelssohn seems to suggest a more garden-party variety of love, rather than the edge of lust that the film needs to carry across its point about desire's masterful hold over the soul.
Do I even have to mention that MGM includes no other extras apart from some notes on the insert and a theatrical trailer? Oh well, at least there are English subtitles this time. We're making progress. Maybe next release, we'll get color bars.
So what went wrong with A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy? Perhaps the entire project was merely Woody's way of biding time while his attention was focused on Zelig. If so, then this film is really the equivalent of doodling in the margins while gathering your thoughts to write something of substance (or more apt for Woody, tooting out a ditty on your clarinet while gathering your wits to play a jazz number). One of Woody Allen's weakest efforts, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy is probably worth a look for Woody completists, if only to compare the sort of films he is good at to one where he is working far outside his strengths.
The court orders Mr. Allen to stay safely in the city, where his brands of wry humor and existential despair are more appropriate. And MGM's recidivism has become tiresome: the studio is once again fined for its lack of supplemental materials.
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