Somewhere between Alice in Wonderland and A Christmas Carol, and continuing on Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo fantasy-style, Alice is a minor work sandwiched chronologically between two Woody films that I much prefer: Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Shadows and Fog (1991).
Alice (Mia Farrow) has back pains. She also might be in love with another man. With the hopes of curing the former – and ultimately to also cure the latter – she visits the mysterious Dr. Yang (Keye Luke). His herbs and potions not only open her eyes to the materialistic world in which she’s trapped, but also grant her fleeting powers of invisibility, communication with the dead, and irresistible attraction.
As always, Woody Allen assembles a great cast. Alongside Farrow are William Hurt, Joe Mantegna (in a role I prefer to those he did with Mamet), Alec Baldwin, Cybil Shepherd, and Bernadette Peters, not to mention cameos by Bob Balaban, Elle Macpherson, and James Toback!
Alice feels minor in part because it’s already-tread territory for Allen, but also because its narrative is slight. Still, as always, Woody plays with some nice visual moments.
One of the best is Alice’s first flashback, while under Dr. Yang’s hypnosis. As he started way back in the 70s, Allen fuses past and present by presenting both in the same space. Here, however, he separates the two temporalities not by actor and context alone, but also with lighting cues:
Alice starts in MCU:
And suddenly the lights dim. A red glow appears as though we’re in a photographic dark room. The light flashes as Doug (William Hurt, playing Alice’s husband) magically appears and Dr. Yang looks on. Together, Alice and Doug relive how they first met:
It’s a pretty sequence, and the cinematography (by Antonioni regular Carlo Di Palma…does this look like Blow Up…or even Red Desert?) pushes the “down the rabbit-hole” mood that will continue throughout.
Other images continue the same trend. Alice in a bold red coat amidst the otherwise dreary and gray zoo grounds:
An expressionistic image that could be pulled from an ’80s Paul Verhoeven film as Joe (Mantegna) and his ex-wife make love in front of one of her latest ad campaigns.
Expressly Woody Allen: idyllic, out of the city, country-side meets religious anxiety:
More of the former, cool-toned expressionism as Alice’s former, and since-deceased boyfriend Ed (Baldwin) visits her late at night. I like how Allen insists on a simple semi-transparent image as representative of a ghost and doesn’t go with any new, 90s technology to represent it. Keeps it timely:
These varying looks are the most satisfying bits of Alice. There are, of course, classically structured Woody Allen moments.
Joe and Alice make love for the first time. Allen sets it in a city loft. The rain pounds overhead as his camera slowly dollies towards the couple on the bed:
A hard cut moves us to a Thelonious Monk record (he’s a jazz musician, she pretends to know a lot about jazz):
And the camera then tilts up to reveal Joe and Alice:
Simple, and therefore classic Woody: slow-pacing underscoring an important moment. Fluid long takes to accomplish a lot. A space that is small and personal (think of Alvie’s apartment in Annie Hall).