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Woody Makes His 50th Without the Buzz

Writer-director Woody Allen recently notched his 50th film — but this Woody has no buzz … not even for such an impressive milestone.

The once-beloved auteur behind such landmarks as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Sleeper, and (my favorite) Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen holds a record 16 Oscar noms for screenwriting. But he’s now essentially been canceled, and almost no one wants to work with him anymore.

The furor stems from ugly accusations for which he was never formally charged, prosecuted or convicted — despite many months of careful investigation. But since this article is actually a review of Allen’s absorbing and accomplished new thriller Coup de Chance (which is indeed his 50th film), I won’t go into the case any further; I merely wanted to explain why the movie has a cast of unknowns, was made overseas and is entirely in French (with subtitles, of course).

Happily, after several Allen duds over the past decade, critics agree this is a strong return to form for the fallen giant. It should certainly interest his many still-stalwart fans — of which your Webb critic is certainly one.

Allen’s amazing filmography ranges from light-hearted comedies to sharp-edged thrillers — with a few splendid titles combining both (Scoop, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery). In either genre, most of his work advances a firm existential viewpoint, with much depending on random chance — while the good things in life (such as love, music and art) go a long way toward brightening a brutal, broken world.

Now readily available for streaming, Coup de Chance falls firmly into the thriller category. With a title that translates to “Stroke of Luck,” it focuses on a young Parisian wife and her affair with an old high-school chum much younger and more sensitive than her wealthy, selfish husband. Since Allen’s career seems to emphasize comedy and existentialism, it’s easy to forget what a fine storyteller he is — and Coup is a solid reminder of that, especially in its final half-hour.

The acting is terrific, and the story gains momentum from our strong feelings for or against Allen’s characters. His denouement, meanwhile, takes a totally unexpected left turn; it may feel unsatisfying to thriller-fans expecting him to tie it all together in a tidy package — but it’s certainly consistent with the “stroke of luck” worldview so clearly established in the film’s first hour. And in any case, the ending will not shock those who recall the ring-scene in Allen’s lauded 2005 movie Match Point.

Along with all this, I was especially struck by three salient aspects of this late-career winner:

First, the lush, multi-hued cinematography by lensing legend Vittorio Storaro, who has worked with Bertolucci, Coppola and Warren Beatty; he’s also done several recent films for Allen, including the flawed but visually gorgeous Wonder Wheel (2017). So I guess some famous folks will still work with Woody!

Second, I remain impressed by Allen’s restraint with nudity and sex.

To put it bluntly: If he were really the sort of depraved deviant suggested by his widespread cancellation, he might be expected to have his actresses take their clothes off as frequently as possible; in his heyday, he certainly had the directorial power to demand that — like so many other gaze-happy Hollywood males. But he has never done so — and he doesn’t do it in Coup de Grace, either.

Indeed, Allen’s ability to craft a frank and exciting thriller without being explicit should serve as a lesson to other filmmakers who keep putting young actresses in totally gratuitous states of undress.

Third, and perhaps most remarkable: Allen doesn’t speak a word of French; yet he managed to direct entirely in another language — with, I might add, his usual conviction and panache.

What’s more: All this startlingly recalls Allen’s lesser-known comedy Hollywood Ending (2002), in which he plays a director who manages to make a hit despite going secretly (and temporarily) blind during production. And that film’s finale, with the resultant movie flopping here but hitting big in France, feels like another prophecy of the way that country has now become the only place Woody Allen can make movies.

Let’s hope the 88-year-old master has time and energy to make a few more.