Before Jean-Luc there was Woody. The singular object of my film obsession throughout my final year of high school, I managed to overlook his annoying neuroses, his unfortunate sense of style and his taboo relationship with his adopted daughter. After all, Mr Allen likes jazz, he’s into the classics and he lives in New York! However, while others were swooning over Diane Keaton’s fashionable and androgynous attire in Annie Hall (1977), which is so often referenced in fashion spreads, I was taken with the monochromatic romanticism of Manhattan (1979). From the visually striking opening sequence – an unfolding tableaux of imagery that is reminiscent of photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and set to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” – Allen effectively seduces the viewer with his anachronistic view of New York City.
I have a pessimistic view of relationships. My view has always been that you talk about it with your friends, you scheme, you plot, and you see psychoanalysts. You see marriage counselors, get medicated, do everything they can, but in the end you have to luck out. It’s complete and total luck.
– Woody Allen
So much of the critical attention on Allen’s work tends to focus on elements divorced from the actual aesthetics of his films. For example, his screen persona, his witty writing, his recurring collaborators, the philosophical meanderings of his scripts and the heightened mood of existential angst that permeates his cinema have taken centre stage to such an extent that the sheer style and beauty of his films is sometimes overlooked. I find Manhattan, with its amazing widescreen photography by Gordon Willis, Allen’s most captivating film – although he was reportedly so unhappy with it upon completion that he offered to make United Artists another film for free.
The plot of the film, like so many in Allen’s cinema, is concerned with negotiating modern relationships: Allen (who plays 42-year-old Isaac) is dating a girl who is still in high school (Mariel Hemingway), while his best friend (Michael Murphy) is cheating on his wife with Diane Keaton. Then there is Isaac’s ex-wife (played by the luminous Meryl Streep) who has left him for another woman and has recently published a mocking and exposing study of their failed marriage. It’s a romantic comedy that sheds light on the complexities of love and desire, the self-indulgence and delusion of the upper-middle class and is awash with Allen’s characteristic realism. Romantic relationships are simultaneously portrayed through a lens of disenchantment and nostalgia – a motif that visually spills over into the shots of the city.
Indeed, every frame is perfectly composed to show shadows of emotional uncertainty and the city itself is utilised as a metaphor that tracks the changes in the narrative trajectory. The film camera is rendered a silent observer that takes in the details of the story, capturing the splendour, charm, desolation, innocence, tenderness, isolation and distance at the heart of the onscreen interactions and the scenography of Manhattan. To this end, a number of critics have claimed that Manhattan is a love letter to New York – and it most certainly is – but it’s also a nuanced study of the human condition. When Isaac begins his novel with “Chapter one. He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion…” he is, of course, talking about the subject of love itself. For me, this conflation between love and the city makes for a deeply affecting cinematic experience. Even non-Woody fans should enjoy it.