Arts & Culture

Is “Cassandra’s Dream” About Soon-Yi?

For fans of Woody Allen, the elephant has been in the room for fifteen years now. We remember it's there, right? That Allen took up with his quasi-stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn when he was 56, she 22? That he had nude … Read More

By / February 14, 2008

For fans of Woody Allen, the elephant has been in the room for fifteen years now. We remember it's there, right? That Allen took up with his quasi-stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn when he was 56, she 22? That he had nude photographs of her? That Mia Farrow accused him of molesting their adopted daughter (a judge found the charges "inconclusive")? Sigh. We — especially those of us who are, despite it all, fans — remember.

And yet, for someone whose mature films were once so autobiographical, this notorious, unavoidable aspect of Allen's personal life has seemed absent from his artistic production. On the contrary, many of the films of the last decade and a half (and there has been roughly one each year) have been fluff, like the caper Small Time Crooks, the musical Everyone Says I Love You, the mob farce Bullets Over Broadway — and those were the good ones. This has led many critics to conclude that Allen's introspective phase is over. The old man is going through the motions.

A closer look at Allen's late films, however, belies that claim. In fact, Allen's new film, Cassandra's Dream, is but the latest in public confessions of moral failure and deep ethical ambivalence. It's in code, but if we look closely at this series of Allen's films — and this article will have spoilers for Match Point, Cassandra's Dream, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Scoop — we can see they are exactly about "the elephant in the room."

The first, and best, of the late films is 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors. (Notice that, if Farrow's accusations were at all true, this was exactly when Allen became inappropriately interested in the minors living in his home.) That film introduced the central question of the late work: whether there's anyone minding the moral store, whether criminals ever get their comeuppance. Crimes and Misdemeanors also explicitly blends tragedy and comedy, a formal choice that reflects its ethical content. For flawed people, does life end tragically (as it ought to) or comically (as it oughtn't, but often does)?

In Crimes, the contrast is stark. Martin Landau, in perhaps the most brilliant performance of a brilliant career, plays Judah Rosenthal, who contracts to kill his wife  mistress (murder is the quintessential immoral act in the late films), and gets away with it. At first he is wrought with guilt, but eventually, the guilt passes. Meanwhile, Woody Allen's character, a good man, loses everything, and the film's moral conscience, a rabbi played by Sam Waterston, goes blind.

In the film's climactic scene, Rosenthal tells his story, in third person. He’s guilt-ridden and believes God is monitering him. “Little sparks of his religious background which he'd rejected are suddenly stirred up,” he says. He’s driven almost to confess. “And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted… he's Scot-free. His life is completely back to normal.’’

Knowing now what we didn't know in 1989, it's not a huge stretch to see Allen reflecting on his own situation in these words. Did he commit a crime? Or just a misdemeanor? Who knows. Maybe all he did was fantasize about a much younger woman who was effectively, if not legally, his stepdaughter. But perhaps there were pangs of guilt already. And yet, as Alan Alda's smarmy character says in the film, "comedy is tragedy plus time." Time passes, and Oedipus gets over it. The tragic, ethical sense of what ought to be gives way to a comic, aesthetic play of what just is.

Flash forward to 2005's Match Point, widely regarded as Allen's return to form, and featuring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Chris, a tennis pro who, by chance, falls in with a wealthy playboy and ends up marrying his sister Chloe — all the while lusting after the playboy's fiancee Nola, played by Scarlett Johansson. Eventually, Nola and Chris have an affair, Nola becomes pregnant, and refuses to have an abortion. Chris is trapped: he depends on Chloe's family for his job, his life, his dreams of making it in the world. And so he ends up killing Nola (and a neighbor) in cold blood.

Chris is almost caught when he fails to destroy a piece of evidence — a gold ring that bounces on a railing like a tennis ball bouncing on the net. But luckily for him, the ring gets picked up by a drug addict, substantiating rather than undermining his alibi. He escapes. It's a comedy. Cue jazz music and white-on-black credits.

As in Crimes and Misdemeanors, the bad guy gets away with it, though this time the emphasis is less on his cool lack of conscience than on his dumb luck.

The same themes are repeated in Cassandra's Dream. In it, Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play two working class English brothers, Ian a striver like Match Point's Chris, and Terry, down on his luck. Their wealthy uncle promises them all the money they need — if they kill a business associate who's about to testify against him. Eventually, the brothers do the deed. But then Terry spirals downward, consumed with guilt, while Ian represses the guilt and gets on with fulfilling his ambitions.

Finally, when Terry is about to crack, Ian plots to kill him before he confesses. But at the last moment, Ian repents, and instead of poisoning Terry, merely punches him. In the ensuing fight, Terry accidentally kills Ian, and then kills himself out of remorse. It's a tragedy. Cue brooding Philip Glass music and white-on-black credits.

Cassandra's Dream is perhaps even darker than Match Point, which was even darker than Crimes and Misdemeanors. In Crimes, the comedy unfolded despite the murderer's remorse. In Match Point, remorse is irrelevant. In Cassandra, it's downright harmful: the tragedy is precipitated precisely because of Terry's last-minute pang of conscience. If he'd been more cruel, there would have been a happy ending.

The lesson is clear: comedy is tragedy plus time — unless you brood about it.

In this light, even some of Allen's lesser works begin to take on a new light. For example, Scoop's murderous villain is only discovered by a comic mix of supernaturalism and shtick (and Allen's character pathetically dies as he tries to save the heroine). Melinda and Melinda revisits the comedy/tragedy dichotomy, suggesting that luck determines the outcome much more than our own actions. And so on.

So, the elephant is in the room, and in the frame. By now, "Woody and Soon-Yi" have become a fixture on the New York cultural scene; we're no longer shocked. But whether there was misconduct early on, or only unseemliness, Allen has not overlooked the obvious, which is that he is a 72-year-old married to a 30-year-old who wasn't quite his stepdaughter but almost sort of was. Allen is unpunished, but perhaps unforgiven as well, at least by himself.

On the surface, Allen's agonizing agnosticism is squarely at odds with traditional Jewish conceptions of justice, Allen's obvious foil. This is the "religious background which he'd rejected." But Allen hasn't rejected its most salient feature, which is not the pat answer that God sees everything, but the wrestling with the problems of justice and evil in the first place. Judaism is a religion of Job, not just Sunday School, and Allen's extended meditations on the presence or absence of moral order are the essence of the Jewish ethical conscience.

We all know that God does not punish the wicked — at least not in ways we can see. And yet, we who were raised in the Jewish tradition still experience Jewish guilt, itself both comic and tragic. Is there really no moral order in the world? Is remorse an ally or an adversary? Will there be an accounting at the end, or is religion for suckers? Is it better to remember the past, or let it go?

Allen has now worked out at least three different permutations of these questions in his late films, each one with a different sense of pathos, a different perspective on the mystery. Of course, all this is speculation. Maybe there's really no big deal about the Allen/Previn marriage. Maybe Allen couldn't care less. Or maybe that's what he's trying to figure out.