Rifkin’s Festival


‘…a slight, colourful and constantly entertaining film that delves once again into the deep well of Allen’s well-documented neurosis…’

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.



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  1. Glad to see Wallie Shawn is also still ‘working away.’ If you’ve read Mia Farrow’s What Falls Away and Allen’s Apropos of None, it’s easy to see who is sane and full of quips and who is at best annoyingly melodramatic and at worst in need of medication for a brain Missing In Action. Allen and Farrow made 13 films during their 12 years together–though Allen never moved in. Allen once said ‘tradition, the illusion of permanence’ and ‘people all know the same truth, but some are particularly good at distorting it.’
    While there were lots of refs to great artists/masters Gen XYZ might not know about, those that love art IMO will enquire, as I did when I watched the Music Man and wondered who Balzac was. I sense Allen in many of his movies re-asks the Alfie question ‘what’s it all about?’ He’s still as optimistic as Peggy Lee was in Is That All There Is? It’s hard to watch Shawn perform w/out seeing a bit of the wily criminal in Princess Bride and grateful, but confused guest in My Dinner with Andre.
    I didn’t see shades of the Mex surreal film Exterminating Angel in this film. What I did see was Allen confessing he ‘cheated on the metaphysical exam and looked into the soul of the person next to him.’ I listened to Allen bebopping at a jazz club in NY City decades ago–awesome! It’s like Allen said ‘LIfe is made better by art.’
    I also looked up surname Rifkin, of Baltic/Yiddish origins: You are a law unto itself. Your tendency is to finish whatever you start. You are tolerant and like to help humanity. Hmmm…

    • That’s funny, I immediately thought of Scottish Secretary of State Malcolm Rifkind, and investigated no further!

      I’ve encountered people in both the Farrow and Allen camps, and I’m not up for mounting a prosecution or defence. I’m reviewing films not people, and I’ve assessed more than enough supporting evidence to review this film. But what was once a posture with Allen has become a position; he’s always asked the big questions, but reality has caught up with him. He used to ape that search, but now he’s showing us that he’s still scrambling for answers. Didn’t he say’ the most important thing is honesty; if you can fake that, you’ll be fine?’

  2. Am astonished that he’s still managing to find funding given the hoopla surrounding him. And I wonder if the stars who once flocked to his movies are running away as fast. I’ve not always enjoyed his later films but a nice bit of pastiche always works. Possibly an audience limitation might be who of the younger crowd has an inkling about Bergman. But this is a solid cast with actors who produce good work so fingers crossed though it doesn’t sound as if this will show up in British cinemas – I can see the arthouses giving him another taste of cancel culture.

    • I think Allen’s many fans and cineastes will dig this. But why should arthouses give in to cancel culture at all? The US are contemplating a second term as president for a man with dozens of rape allegations against him; where’s cancel culture in that case? The selective nature of the cancelling does my head in, and while I’m not endorsing anyone’s private life, I’ll write about whatever films deserve it on merit. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to see it; in this case, the first offer I got was from the US.

    • Neurotic men are annoying, and Allen’s films have often depicted his neurosis in detail, so this probably wouldn’t be the place to start. Marrying his step-daughter has clearly caused him and his family genuine angst, and I’m steering clear of that by sticking to reviewing the film itself.

  3. It’s weird, I loved all of Allen’s early stuff but I haven’t seen any of his movies since Purple Rose of Cairo, which was before all of his problems. For some reason I just switched him off. This sounds interesting, if the May/December angle seems strained (as usual).

    • That list of his best films from the last ten years is all good stuff. Like you, I loved the early films, and I’m pleased that these are the ones he riffs on here. Love and Death was a favourite of mine.

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