Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is the best film he’s made since at least Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and maybe as far back as 2005’s Match Point. It’s underrated, sharply written, and really fantastically acted.
As I’ve written about on here before, Woody has the gift (luck? knack?) of making voiceovers work that I wouldn’t otherwise like. The best example is from his 1988 film Another Woman (which I blogged about HERE and is probably one of my five favorite Woody Allen films). You Will Meet features voiceover – it’s the omniscient, storyteller variety – and the credits tell me that it’s the voice of Zak Orth.
Similar to the opening VO in Vicky Cristina Barcelona this one really bothered me at first: why is it necessary? Woody uses it to connect characters (and there are a lot of them), but these aren’t connections that couldn’t be made visually. It’s no secret that Woody Allen is a literary guy: maybe he wants his films to watch like books. Regardless, when all is said and done, the VO gives the film an oddly optimistic, mystical quality that really works with the content. Unlike the VO in Another Woman, I’m regardless convinced that You Will Meet would be better without it, but it doesn’t drag it down like in other films.
No surprise here: the cast in You Will Meet is awesome: Antonio Banderas, Naomi Watts, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Brolin, Freida Pinto, Lucy Punch, and Gemma Jones are all great. I was particularly struck by Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin in this one. Both play seemingly simple with such ease. There’s a very innocuous scene towards the middle of the film where Sally and Roy (Watts and Brolin, playing a married couple in some trouble) meet her dad’s new girlfriend. Before Alfie (Hopkins) arrives with the young, ditzy Charmaine (Punch) on his arm, it’s just Sally and Roy sitting at an outside table, not really talking, waiting for the entrance. Do you know how hard this type of silence is to make look natural? With a combination of nonchalance and anticipation – and general comfort in front of a camera – Watts and Brolin are actually magnetic in this tiny moment. I was so struck by how much acting is stillness and silence.
If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know that I love to talk blocking. Here’s a clip from the film:
Starting at about 0:30 everything’s set up. Sally and her occult-loving mother Helena (Jones) are in the living room as Roy enters from the back to announce the rejection of his latest novel. Once Roy enters, the rest of the shot is one, long unbroken take. But this isn’t flashy long-take world. There are no hundreds of extras to corral, no explosions to work around; this is just a small space and three people, with the goal of naturalism.
From the beginning of the long take until about 1:12, Roy controls the camera movement. The camera pans with him, and then frames him in a 2-shot (1:05) with Helena.
Then, at 1:12, Helena becomes the major subject of the frame. It’s an apt time: she takes a new offensive asking Roy why he hasn’t become a doctor, chiding him for his novel.
At 2:00, it’s Sally’s turn. The camera now follows her back into the living room as she takes over the chiding, reprimanding Roy for money issues, defending her mother as the bread-winner. And at 2:10 she gets strides close to Roy (the camera pans with her) as she essentially makes an ultimatum: I want my life, you’re screwing it up.
From here, the camera chooses different characters to follow, thus putting each in a temporary position of power. Helena comes back into the room; Sally stands by herself drinking, upset; Roy smashes a glass and stomps off; Sally proclaims the end of her marriage.
Like a lot of good blocking (the overwhelming majority, in my opinion) this scene relies on who has power and/or who has something important to say. But it’s more than just “follow the person who’s talking,” or “pan with the character who’s upset”:
Look again at that moment at 1:14. Helena has her back to us, framing Roy in an over-the-shoulder medium shot. Watch the natural speed with which Roy and Sally come in and out of that hallway. She comes in at 1:19, and essentially “pushes” Roy out of the way. There’s empty space after that – just as Helena talks to no one…because no one is listening! – and then Roy comes back in just as she finishes her line. It’s perfect timing, and beautiful acting with three actors hitting marks with remarkable accuracy and realism, hovering in a random spot in the center of a hallway and making it appear to have all the importance in the world, using off-screen space (where Roy and Sally disappear to) to emphasize separation. When Helena finally walks forward at 1:37 Roy retreats – she’s invaded his space. He turns his back on her – he doesn’t want to listen. Watch this scene on mute and the power dynamics will remain entirely intact.