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'Coup de Chance' is a typical Woody Allen film — with one appalling final detail

Niels Schneider and Lou de Laâge star in <em>Coup de Chance.</em>
GRAVIER PRODUCTIONS
Niels Schneider and Lou de Laâge star in Coup de Chance.

Once upon a time, it might have been strange to think that the arrival of a new Woody Allen movie in theaters would qualify as some kind of event. But much has changed, especially over the past decade, with renewed focus on allegations that Allen sexually abused his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was 7 years old — accusations that the director has long denied. Amazon Studios, which had been distributing Allen's movies, cut ties with him in 2018. His two most recent movies, the critically panned A Rainy Day in New York and Rifkin's Festival, were barely shown in the U.S.

And so it came as something of a surprise when news broke weeks ago that Allen's new movie, the romantic drama-thriller Coup de Chance, would be released in American theaters. The decision probably has something to do with the movie's strong reception last fall at the Venice International Film Festival, where more than one critic called it Allen's best film in years.

That may not be saying much, given how weak his output has been since Blue Jasmine 11 years ago. But there is indeed an assurance and a vitality to Coup de Chance that hasn't been evident in the director's work in some time. That's partly due to the change of scenery, as Allen's difficulty securing American talent and financing has led him to the more receptive climes of Europe. While he's set movies in France before, this is his first feature shot entirely in French with French actors. It may have been done out of necessity, but it lends a patina of freshness to an otherwise familiar Allen story of guilt, suspicion and inconvenient desire.

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It begins with a random reunion on the streets of Paris. Fanny, played by Lou de Laâge, works at an auction house nearby; Alain, played by Niels Schneider, is a writer. (Even if his name weren't Alain, it would be pretty clear that he's the Allen avatar in this story.)

This is the first time Fanny and Alain have seen each other since they were high-school classmates in New York years ago, during which time, Alain confesses, he had an intense crush on Fanny. There's an immediate spark between them, but alas, Fanny is now married to a wealthy businessman, Jean, played by Melvil Poupaud.

Before long, Fanny and Alain are having a full-blown affair, taking long lunch breaks in Alain's tiny apartment, which is homier and more appealing to Fanny than the spacious Parisian residence she shares with Jean. They also have a beautiful country house where she and Jean go for regular weekend getaways.

Jean often invites friends along to go hunting in the woods, and even before the rifles come out, it's clear that this romantic triangle is destined to end in violence. Many moviegoers will recognize the elements from films like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point: an adulterous romance, a premeditated murder and a darkly cynical consideration of the role that luck plays in human affairs. At one point, Jean notes that he doesn't believe in luck at all — which sounds like an echo of the nihilism that has long been at the heart of Woody Allen's work.

Nothing about Coup de Chance is terribly surprising, in other words. It's a decently executed version of a movie Allen has made many times before, enlivened by Vittorio Storaro's elegant if overly burnished-looking cinematography. As you'd expect, there's a lot of jazz and a lot of loftily repetitive dialogue, the effect of which is somewhat neutralized because the actors are speaking French. They all give crisp, engaged performances, especially Valérie Lemercier as Fanny's shrewd mother, who begins to suspect that Jean is not as trustworthy as he appears.

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As the story unravels, one appalling detail sticks out. In a few scenes, Jean is shown playing with a large model train set — and as others have pointed out, it seems to evoke a key detail, also involving a train set, from Dylan Farrow's testimony. Could Allen be referencing his own off-screen scandals, and to what purpose? Perhaps, suspecting that he might be done with the movies at long last, as he's hinted in interviews, he wanted to thumb his nose at his detractors with a provocative parting shot. Or maybe it's just a reminder of something that, for better or worse, has always been true about Woody Allen: For all the many, many characters he's introduced us to over the decades, his truest protagonist and subject has always been himself.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.