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Woody Allen riffs on death & movies in ‘Rifkin’s Festival’




Rated PG-13. At Landmark Kendall Square.

Grade: A-

To the tune of a jaunty, jazzy guitar, Woody Allen once again confronts death, quite literally during a familiar, final chess match. He also expresses his abiding love for the classics of 20th century European cinema in “Rifkin’s Festival,” a film that manages to be romantic and elegiac at the same time.

With actor Wallace Shawn standing in for Allen, the film begins with a session between failed novelist and formerly happy film professor Mort Rifkin (Shawn) and his therapist, a typical Allen trope. The action unfolds in flashback, and we are taken along with Mort and his attractive, younger wife Sue (Gina Gershon), a film publicist, as they arrive in San Sebastian, Spain, to attend the festival there and where Sue has an important client , a young and handsome Frenchman and acclaimed film director named Philippe (Louis Garrel). His film about war is in the festival and has many admirers. Mort is not among them. He finds Philippe pretentious and middle-brow (two frequent slams against Allen). Mort is also jealous of the obvious attraction between Sue and Philippe.

“Rifkin’s Festival” is really two festivals. One is the festival Sue and Mort attend in Spain. The other is the one unreeling in Mort’s head, and it is made up of re-enactments of scenes from his favorite films. These re-enactments usually involve Mort’s self-image (the “Citizen Kane” take-off features a sled named “Rose Budnick”), Mort’s jealousy (“Jules and Jim”) and his sex fantasies (“Persona”). “Rifkin’s Festival” is the obvious descendant of Allen’s underappreciated 1980 gem “Stardust Memories.”

“Rifkin’s Festival” is not a broad Allen comedy. But there are laughs if you look for them. Richard Kind plays Mort’s father in flashbacks. Garrel is wonderful as Philippe, the handsome rival for Sue’s affections. When Mort levels one of his zingers at Philippe, Garrel is inclined to give Shawn a quick, confused, darting look. It’s a great understatement.

Chest pains give Mort reason to meet Dr. Jo Rojas (Elena Anaya, “The Skin I Live In”), with whom he becomes infatuated. She is married to a tumultuous artist who cheats on her named Paco (a terrific bit by Spanish actor Sergi Lopez). Christoph Waltz appears near the end as a version of Death from Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 classic “The Seventh Seal.” Shawn, who has appeared in Allen’s “Shadows and Fog,” “Radio Days” and “Manhattan,” gives Mort just the right amount of charm, wit, sarcasm and intelligence.

(“Rifkin’s Festival” contains profanity, suggestive material and drug use.)


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