Although “Rifkin’s Festival” debuted at the San Sebastián Film Festival in September 2020, the Woody Allen comedy languished, until now, without an American distributor, as long-standing accusations of sexual abuse against the filmmaker received a fresh airing in the 2020 HBO docuseries “Farrow vs. Allen.”
Set in San Sebastián, Spain – appropriately enough, against the gorgeous backdrop of the festival – the writer-director’s latest movie tells the story of a nebbishy film professor (Wallace Shawn) who suspects his gorgeous film publicist wife (Gina Gershon) of having an affair with a handsome French director (Louis Garrel). The cinephilic, sometimes sycophantic milieu is lightly satirized, with an opening montage of inane questions from film journalists posed to movie stars and directors.
“In the movie, were all your orgasms special effects?” is an example of the humor, which is broad and not especially clever. The same might be said of the film’s central conceit, in which Shawn’s Mort Rifkin – like many Allen protagonists before him, a stand-in for the filmmaker himself: neurotic, insecure and obsessed with death, God and the meaning of life – has black-and-white dreams based on classic films by directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Orson Welles.
These cinematic nightmares show Allen to have insights on movies including “Citizen Kane,” “Jules and Jim,” “The Exterminating Angel” and “The Seventh Seal” that are no deeper than those of a C student in an undergraduate film history class.
The protagonist, who narrates the film as flashbacks during a conversation with his psychotherapist (Michael Garvey), seems justified in his suspicions of his wife and her client, who flirt with each other shamelessly. Simultaneously, Mort embarks on an infatuation with a pretty Spanish physician, Jo Rojas (Elena Anaya), whom he visits after experiencing chest pains. She’s also unhappily married, to a philandering painter (Sergi López).
In a refreshingly realistic take, the doctor – way out of Mort’s league and more than 20 years his junior – shows absolutely no interest in him other than as a friend and someone to commiserate with in life.
The film’s location, which centers largely on the Belle Époque Hotel Maria Cristina but also includes boat trips and other scenic detours, is absolutely lovely to look at, with lots of pretty architecture and golden light. But the story itself feels low energy and slightly lazy.
Shawn seems mildly and often inappropriately amused by nothing, with a perpetual expression on his face that is midway between a half-smirk and outright bemusement. The dialogue includes many moments of self-conscious awkwardness (too many to count, honestly) in which straightforward examples of small talk – “I got you something,” “Where have you been?” and “How are you?” – are met with a confused “Me?
“Rifkin’s Festival” explicitly sets us up to expect a story that revisits Allen’s grand fixation on the big questions, or as one character puts it, “What’s it all about?” But in the end, the film doesn’t feel like it’s about very much at all.
It’s a throwaway movie, a bit of filler in the Woody Allen canon. Like a dream you’ve half forgotten by the time you get to the breakfast table, it’s neither good enough to make much of an impression or bad enough to completely forget.
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