Woody Allen is still working away, despite the cancel-culture obloquy regularly whipped up around him. His latest, Rifkin’s Festival, is a return to some previous stamping grounds, with Wallace Shawn taking on the lead role as Rifkin, a lovelorn film director who attempts to escape an unhappy marriage by striking up an unrequited relationship with a glamorous female doctor. The film starts with Rifkin in the analysts’ chair, and closes with him turning to the audience to ask what we make of the story. Allen seems to be inviting the audience to speculate on his narrative, and it’s the job of critics to take the bait.
The location is San Sebastian, sun-drenched and busy with the pageant of film-premieres. Mort Rifkin arrives with his wife Sue (the always great Gina Gershon), but he can see that she’s infatuated with a young, pretentious film director. In fact, no-one wants to listen to Mort Rifkin’s endless name-checking of Fellini and other past-masters, and the director sinks into a series of dreams in which he parallels his travails with the events in classic films like The Exterminating Angel, Jules and Jim and The Seventh Seal. Rifkin’s choices nail down the backward-looking direction of his obsessions; he’s also a practicing hypochondriac, and seeks professional help from Dr Jo (Elena Anaya), with whom he strikes up a chaste friendship, but Mort’s anxieties about his own mortality are rapidly catching up with him…
Making hay in the grey area between the big screen and reality, a regular theme from Play It Again Sam to The Purple Rose of Cairo, Rifkin’s Festival aims to do for classic art-house cinema what Midnight in Paris did for literature; with the great Vittorio Storaro lensing, the parodies are beautifully done, notably the appearance of the traditionally loquacious Death (Christoph Waltz) and a Bergman skit, both of which are elements previously parodied in Allen’s own Love and Death. There’s a greatest hits element here that’s welcome; there’s also a reprise of the classic standing-in-line gag from Annie Hall, and it’s a plus that Allen still wants to make us laugh. Rifkin’s pretence of medical ailments recalls the transgressions of Allen’s short story The Shallowest Man, and Allen’s traditional willingness to observe himself in an unflattering way is greatly aided by Shawn, who gives it the full ‘Ugly American abroad’ treatment but in a wry, sympathetic way.
For an artist supposedly out of form, the last ten years have brought Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine and Café Society, rich pickings for any artist. Rifkin’s Festival is a slight, colourful and constantly entertaining film that delves once again into the deep well of Allen’s well-documented neurosis, a winning dose of self-parody of his own perennial personal anxieties and cinematic escapism.