Bright Lights Film Journal

Ozymandias Melancholia: Woody Allen’s <em>To Rome with Love:</em> A Personal History

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed . . . — from Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”

She keeps adding wine to the sauce. He’s there, tasting it with a wooden spoon, saying it’s bold enough already, but she pours more, glugs of it, already reaching for another bottle. She can’t cook, not a whit. Even her famed brownies rely on a handwritten recipe that’s back in Los Angeles, along with the other detritus of her former life — probably crammed in some bottom drawer or closet shoebox, ready to be forgotten but not yet wholly relinquished. It’s fine, though. They’re a little drunk, and it’s raining, and the pasta won’t go on the stove for another few hours. He says he wants to kiss her, and then he does, a consummation of the wine and the rain and the pasta and the past.

“I liked it, that’s what’s not good,” she says.

“If something’s too good to be true, it probably is,” his conscience cautions, or perhaps it’s his future self. No matter. When they make love on that gray afternoon, it’s as though they’ve parted with a secret.

As here, the moment when Monica (Ellen Page) and Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) begin their affair, Woody Allen’s unfairly maligned To Rome with Love is a regretful piece of work, its sculptor’s passions cut through with worry — the wizened man in the room (Alec Baldwin) whispering warnings in your ear. “I call that futile feeling ‘Ozymandias melancholia,'” Monica tells Jack near the end of a tour of the city: something that survives, that you can’t seem to shake, no matter how deep you’ve buried it. The Bop Decameron indeed: as its original title suggests, the film is a fast-tempo, almost improvisational take on all the degrees of love and loss that permeate Boccaccio’s 14th-century Italian epic, including an aging married couple (Allen and Judy Davis), their daughter (Alison Pill), and her handsome Italian fiancé; young Italian newlyweds and the prostitute (Penelope Cruz) who becomes embroiled in their Roman holiday; and an ordinary family man (Roberto Benigni) thrust into unexpected stardom.

But you want it to be like it is for Jack and Monica when it happens. You want it to sneak up on you as the clouds roll by, like an arm around your middle as you stand on your balcony under the summer moon. You want it to carry you away, in the car, on the bed as the midmorning sun sidles through the shutters, in the kitchen with your wooden spoon in hand. You want it to be soulful and maddening and run through with reticence that you don’t have the energy to maintain, and sometimes it is. Yet — and here is the bittersweet truth we all come up against sometime in our lives, which Allen’s film so beautifully acknowledges — it won’t always be like that, and maybe it shouldn’t, and maybe it can’t.

Monica, hurting from a recent breakup and acting career on the skids, arrives in Rome already harried, despite the whiskey and Ambien she downed on the flight. Played by Page with a winsome, sultry directness, Monica sweeps in like a Santa Ana careering down the mountainside, hot and unnerving. She’s visiting Sally (Greta Gerwig), her straitlaced best friend (and Jack’s girlfriend, as it happens), anxious where Monica is careless, light where Monica is dark. Safe Sally. Superfriend Sally. Unsexy Sally.

Jack, despite his girlfriend’s quite open fear that he’ll fall for Monica, as though it’s happened before, dismisses these concerns out of hand. Monica’s trouble, and not the kind he’s trying to get into anytime soon. “You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself,” Baldwin’s aging architect, and the love triangle’s one-man Greek chorus, tells him doubtfully. And indeed Jack gapes at Monica’s story of her rendezvous with a lingerie model, one of those lush, meandering Woody Allen monologues, an autobiography in what seems a single breathless sentence. It doesn’t matter that Monica’s told not-quite-the-whole truth, because the performance is the art of it.

“I like to embellish,” she admits. “It’s part of my creative charm.”

“It’s sort of charming that she’s a con artist,” Jack says later.

“Go ahead,” his conscience jibes. “Walk into the propeller.”

* * *

The other threads woven through To Rome with Love are more boisterous and chaotic, the bop to Jack and Monica’s Decameron. But in a way they’re no less nostalgic, or even melancholy, a primer for Allen’s body of work. To Rome with Love is in many ways his Prairie Home Companion, an elegy to a life made in, and from, the movies. It’s almost a form of film criticism, alluding to the early farces (Sleeper), the neurotic comedies (Annie Hall), the showbiz paeans (The Purple Rose of Cairo) and send-ups (Bullets over Broadway). As a pastiche, it’s all a bit airy, skimming over the surface, but as a stardust memoir in motion it’s introspective and beautiful — another kind of love. I know how he feels. I’ve been a critic since I wrote a column called “Movies by Matt” for my high school paper, and though it began in the hope that someone else might pay for my tickets, film has since become my most steady object of affection. Not for nothing did Pauline Kael call her first collection of reviews I Lost It at the Movies.

In many ways, you could say I lost it to Woody, one of the first directors whose films spoke to the hidden part of me that wished for a more expansive life. Where many young gay men in the suburbs nuzzled up to Judy Garland and Victor/Victoria and musical theatre, I found a kind of solace in the rousing cine-poem that opens Manhattan, ripe with possibilities I had scarcely imagined. There was a world out there I didn’t know existed until I saw a beautiful city, floating by on the chords of Rhapsody in Blue. Even when Isaac (Allen) breaks her heart, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) retains the hopeful energy, the instinct for the future, so peculiar to the very young. “Not everybody gets corrupted,” she tells him as she prepares to leave for London. “You’ve got to have faith in people.”

And faith in yourself: in the awkward, halting small talk of Annie Hall, the “la-di-da” switchbacks of Diane Keaton’s wandering charm, I noticed my own daydreaming, my tendency to drift into a semiconscious state that would force my mother to call my name six or seven times before breaking through the reverie. But Alvy Singer invites her back to his apartment for a glass of white wine, and suddenly it seemed that I might one day have a kind of sex appeal, might find an Alvy who made me laugh and live with him in the big city and somehow become the writer I had always wanted to be. “Our lives are ruined already,” Joe’s mother explains in Radio Days, set in Rockaway Beach in the era before television. “You still have a chance to grow up and be somebody.” Watching Allen’s films, I believed I did.

I remember now, though, that the divorcing couple whose failed marriage is the propulsive force in Husbands and Wives is named Jack and Sally. I remember that Eliot, in Hannah and Her Sisters, betrays his wife because of her self-sufficiency and emotional stability. I remember that Cliff Sheldon, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, denies the idea that the crises we face will eventually pass out of memory. In other words, I’ve since come to see Annie Hall as a warning of sorts, that not all the promises would be kept, and if when I moved to Los Angeles for college I felt as unmoored as Annie did in New York, by the time I left four years later I realized that I, too, would change, frequently more than I bargained for. I have, as Joan Didion put it, lost touch with a few of the people I used to be, but sometimes I glimpse them in the movies. I will never again watch Manhattan as that pained, dreamy adolescent, but even now I can feel his shadow over the frame.

The shadow of Allen’s career hangs over To Rome with Love in much the same way, as both desire and regret. He may not have been, as his character laments about his days as an avant-garde opera director, “a little fast for mass appeal,” but the film is in touch with an absurdist streak that has long since passed from his aesthetic. Against the family’s wishes, Allen’s Jerry convinces his son-in-law’s father to try his hand at singing professionally, only to see the man’s nerves ruin the audition. It emerges that the guy can only sing in the shower, so Jerry rigs one up that will allow him to perform on stage, nakedly, soapily stepping through the octaves. It’s a ridiculous moment that also happens to be moving, gorgeous, and eminently satisfying, a dream of the intimate impulses we’d exhibit if only we had the chance. “They love it that he sings in the shower,” Jerry says by way of explaining the crowd’s ovation. “They identify.”

So too the rabid fans gathering around Benigni’s Leopoldo, a midlevel office functionary tortured by his unexplained fifteen minutes of fame. Roped, for no apparent reason, into an interview on the morning news, he’s fawned over for his choice of breakfast (two slices of toast with butter and jam); later he’ll be decried for his unthinking agnosticism, as though the pope himself had expressed doubt in the existence of God. Romanced by beautiful women, shown to the best tables in restaurants, his sudden fame is what we all imagine, in our weaker moments, it might be. He tires of it quickly, and briefly celebrates its end when another everyman is anointed by the press, but as in any number of Allen’s movies it’s the thing we don’t have that we crave the most. Leopoldo, thrust back into anonymity, stops a woman on the street and goads her into asking for his autograph. Even his former chauffer is unimpressed: “Life can be very cruel and unsatisfying,” he says.

This existential bleakness, whether made tragic or satirical, is the connective tissue in all of Allen’s work. Like Jerry, he “equate[s] retirement with death,” making roughly a film a year since the late 1960s, as though to stave off his own mortality. Looking back on more than forty years in the cinema, To Rome with Love captures something of all the filmmakers he used to be, all the disappointments and failures, all the promises and betrayals, all the successes and all the loves.

I, too, can trace a life lived at the movies through Sleeper, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, Husbands and Wives, Sweet and Lowdown, Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love. I can watch as my reflection changes up there on the screen, the quicksilver celluloid somehow different every time. I know it’s not the movies that differ, but myself. And so I remember, considering a recent relationship whose end confronted me for a time with my own disappointments and failures, promises and betrayals, successes and loves, the scene in Manhattan when Isaac breaks Tracy’s heart. They’re at a soda fountain, a nearly full milkshake on the counter between them, and he tells her he’s fallen in love with someone else. I used to think, when I was seventeen, that I understood the single tear that falls down Tracy’s cheek, or Isaac’s guilty justification, the way he looks down at the gulf between them, opening ever larger. I realize now that I was wrong to expect my former self always to see movies the same way. The scene only really makes sense when you’ve been on both sides of the milkshake, but I suppose that’s just another way of saying that things don’t always work out as you’d hoped.

* * *
Film critics often acknowledge the subjective content of their assessments — genre preferences, stylistic biases, narrative desires — but only rarely do the more personal complications of watching movies come in for discussion. We hold dear, in order to differentiate between “me, the critic” and “everyone’s a critic,” the idea that knowledge, training, and a clear mind provide some level of objectivity, the critical distance that begets authority. Movies, though, are not lifeless things, stamped with single meanings, and even beyond the realm of “taste” they hit us where we live. Our personal histories, for better or worse, get wrapped up in the act of viewing.

The honesty of this particular piece of writing, of my reaction to this particular film, thus requires a bit of memoir, that form we critics so assiduously avoid. I would like to say that I can argue on behalf of To Rome with Love somewhere outside of myself, but I can’t. It isn’t true. And so I must say that the surprising potency of Allen’s film may be peculiar to me. I have walked into more propellers than I care to admit.

I fall for Monicas, though my Monicas are men: the actor, the artist, the activist, the poet, all with that same bold emotionality, that frank sexiness, with which she wins over Jack. The wonder of Page’s characterization is the way she captures the insouciant, forthright quality of what might stereotypically be called the artistic temperament. It’s blankly elemental for stretches, with bursts of manic energy; it’s ferocious and beautiful, but always cut by some untouchable sadness, just beyond my reach.

This is clearly a fantasy, one whose contours I understand all too well. I think I’ve always been drawn to Woody Allen because it’s his fantasy, too — of himself, and of the sexiest characters in his films, dropping in on stable relationships and blowing them to pieces. I remember now that the student he so desires in Husbands and Wives (Juliette Lewis) is an aspiring writer, that Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ infatuation with Scarlett Johansson in Match Point is rekindled at the Tate Modern, that Rebecca Hall’s sensible student in Vicky Cristina Barcelona betrays her staid boyfriend for Javier Bardem’s brazen painter. Allen’s artists are not sufferers of “Ozymandias melancholia” but purveyors of it, futile to get involved with, perhaps, but also futile to resist.

I am a sucker for the rainy afternoon, too. I remember a New York artist I kissed in an unmarked bar somewhere on the Lower East Side, and how I saw him last at a New Year’s Eve party on a frigid rooftop, hoping the magic was replicable, though it turned out that it was not. I remember how sweetly the first boy I slept with approached me — we had known each other a while, and I had dreamed of that moment almost as long — and coaxed me gently out of my anxiety, and how I forced myself not to cry when he broke things off in the backseat of a car not long after, saying it wouldn’t work out. I remember a party at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, another rooftop in another city thousands of miles away, and the classic cars and the glance that started it, and how, hungover and late, I left him in my bed the next morning as I went to take an exam. The most recent, vivid and blurry at once (my depth perception has never been very good, you see), is not one I can pinpoint quite as precisely, but it takes its shape from a poem he gave me, compiled from fragments of something I know well. It gathered up all the faith and absurdity that I, too, see in the topic, communicating in my private language. When he ended it I drank two bottles of cheap red wine and considered throwing the poem away, but instead I buried it in my own closet shoebox, to be forgotten but not relinquished.

Looking back, I’m aghast at how vulnerable I was, how vulnerable I am, to the temporary requitement. A night, a week, a few months are enough to entangle me, as though I fancy myself a character in one of the movies I’m reviewing. Indeed, as much as it remains a fiction, film sometimes promises an infinitesimal closeness to actual experience, to the meet cutes and headlong dives we make, embrace, wreck, and regret. I don’t think romantic comedies would work if we didn’t see something of our own relationships in them, and Allen in particular has always recognized that not all of them have a happy ending. As yet, mine haven’t, and I can’t say it’s because the actor, the artist, the activist, and the poet were con men, though their embellishments were indeed part of their charm. If we’re being honest, the only confidence game was my own, thinking myself a Jack when in fact I’m a Sally, safe and steady and a little fearful. I suppose that for me it’s this sort of thing, at least as much as writing, that feels like singing without the shower.

I don’t mean this to sound like self-pity. I’m “not a sufferer,” as Monica complains to Jack about the Italian she’s been seeing. Rather, like Baldwin’s character, I’ve grown to relish the events that fill my memory’s crooked corridors, without necessarily aching to replicate the trend. I mention it at all because I’m arguing that a movie many critics viewed as a pleasant mess might be a quiet masterpiece, and the main reason I found its rendering of cinematic and erotic desire so poignant is because it has happened to me. To say it otherwise would be disingenuous, and even if I could make myself immune to the gutwork of watching movies, I wouldn’t want to. I might be a better critic, but I’d be a lesser man.

Still, To Rome with Love scraped me where the wound is raw, before it could scab over to become the ultimate unrelinquished artifact — a scar. In the end, Monica gets a part in a film, five months on location in Tokyo and Los Angeles, and in a gleefully narcissistic meltdown suddenly drops everything to return to the life she left. Relationship over as quickly as it began, and as sharply, the scene — minus the narcissism and the meltdown — recalls the flip side of my rainy afternoons, the moments when I realized the shared wavelength had been broken, the private language misunderstood. I even try to tell myself what Baldwin’s character tells Jack: “You saved your own life there.” And maybe that’ll be true, in the long run. But it’s wisdom from another age, a future I’ve yet to sculpt.